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Colin L. Powell on leadership and other things.

Colin L. Powell talked to an audience of 5000 people at the University of Minnesota on Tuesday 3 October. What was the ‘flavor’ of what he said?

Colin Powell’s ostensible subject was ‘leadership’ though it was clear that the audience anticipated his comments, gently worked, on the present administration, the war in Iraq, Iran and North Korea. North Korea’s announcement that it will test a nuclear device makes Powell’s views all the more interesting. Iran too has announced that it will continue to work on the enrichment process and this has led to a pessimistic report by Javier Solana to the Security Council. What follows here is my interpretation of what Powell said, rather than a verbatim report.

Powell’s views on leadership were based around four or five clear understandings: the creation of a sense of purpose or mission; the understanding that is it ‘followers’ who get things done; inspirational attitude leading to self-motivation; the need for supportive training and the issue of trust. Trust is the bond between leaders and led and voters and leaders, he seemed to say, need to reconsider how trust can be re-established.

He rejected that, in the present context, that this was the most dangerous of times. He argued that there are many positive things about today’s world including the end of the Cold War; the modernization of China; the avoidable nature of any possible disputes over Taiwan; the new strategic partnership with India; the addition of seven new members of NATO. There were problems in Afghanistan, Iraq and in the Israel/Palestinian relationship. He reminded the audience that 5million refugees returned to Afghanistan as a result of the changes there. In Iraq the problems were that there had been a lack of an adequate policy shift after the initial overthrow of the regime. Subsequent sectarian violence, he seemed to say, can only be properly handled by the Iraqi authorities who need to show, and need to be allowed to show, proper leadership. US troops cannot stay there for ever. Iraq plus Palestine together make up 90% of the perception problem with US policy in the Arab world. This is, it seems to me, an important insight that needs further debate.

With respect to the Geneva Convention and associated matters, Powell made it clear that any suggested failure to observe International Conventions causes the United States to lack moral authority in the eyes of foreign governments and populations. The situation was retrievable and trust could be restored. The conditions needed to be tested in the Supreme Court.

Libya has been moved away from nuclear weapons. It took time and a period of isolation. Iran sees itself surrounded by or close to states that have nuclear weapons. Diplomacy, in his view, had time to work as it did in Libya, and it will be a number of years before the situation is critical. The agenda was a diplomatic one with European involvement. North Korea has nuclear capacity. The regime is anxious to survive. It seems to be developing weapons as a way of helping to secure itself, a kind of bargaining chip with the United States. There is nothing that it can do with the weapons.

Powell felt that it was important to remember that over the last few years a number of positive outcomes for diplomacy had emerged: the expansion of NATO and a new basis for European security; the settling of the North-South War in Sudan (though there were still problems with a settlement in Darfur); greater United States aid to Africa; the establishment of a number of free-trade agreements. There were positive developments as well as negative developments and scope for continued diplomacy. His theme overall, it seems to me, was that of building trust and forging alliances, in line with much of the diplomatic actions he sustained when he was in office.