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Former Texas A&M president Robert M. Gates shares thoughts on US influence, China and more

Former Texas A&M president Robert M. Gates shares thoughts on US influence, China and more

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Robert M. Gates, who formerly served as Texas A&M University president and U.S. Secretary of Defense, virtually joined the Bush School’s Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs on Tuesday evening for a wide-ranging online conversation grounded in themes from his new book Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World.

Bush School of Government and Public Service Dean Mark A. Welsh moderated the conversation, and former Transportation Secretary Andrew Card, who also worked as George H.W. Bush’s deputy chief of staff from 1989 to 1992, joined the two men about halfway through the one-hour discussion.

Gates shared a variety of reflections, including thoughts on the U.S. government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, praise for the leadership skills and humor of the late President Bush and Barbara Bush, and analysis on the U.S. relationship with China.

Gates told Welsh that in Exercise of Power, he contends that the United States has become over-reliant on military force in recent years and would be well-served to employ what he describes as a “symphony of power,” which he articulates as the different “instruments” of influence, coercion and power. Among those instruments, Gates said, are military force, diplomacy, cyber capability, economic leverage, religion and investment in communication capabilities.   

“When these instruments of power are integrated in a strategy toward another country — as we did toward the Soviet Union — it really constitutes a symphony of power,” Gates said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t had much of that in the last 30 years.”

Gates served as secretary of defense from 2006 to 2011, notably working under the leadership of presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He was President George H.W. Bush’s CIA director from 1991 to 1993.

The U.S. has always been fiercely partisan, Gates said, but described the more recent political climate as a state of paralysis.

“The inability, particularly in recent years, to deal with any of the major issues facing the country — whether it’s infrastructure or education or immigration or a host of other issues — that’s what’s really dangerous right now,” Gates said. “It’s undermining the perception of America around the world.

“The United States has not been a vocal advocate for human rights and for freedom in recent years, and frankly, the current racial turmoil that we’re going through further damages us in the eyes of people abroad.”

Regarding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Gates said he agreed with the administration’s decision to leave shutdown decisions to individual states, noting the diversity of the nation’s states and municipalities, but he said he would have liked to see the federal government take charge of providing states the equipment needed to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

“If the American military does one thing superbly, it’s logistics,” Gates said. “The notion of the states having to bid against each other for masks and gowns and ventilators — and have to go overseas to try and find sourcing — was, I think, just awful.”

Gates said he thought the federal and some state messaging around the pandemic has been “poor” and also said he was also dismayed by what he described as a lack of a sense of civic responsibility, particularly from younger people, in following health practices for how to reduce the spread of the virus.

“This distancing and wearing masks is not partisan, and it’s not political. It’s just common sense,” Gates said of what he wanted Americans, particular those who are younger, to recognize.

Gates served as A&M’s 22nd president from August 2002 to December 2006. He also worked as the interim dean of the Bush School from 1999 to 2001.

Welsh asked Gates for his views on how the U.S. could have a stronger and more effective relationship with China going forward. Gates replied that China may be the only domestic or foreign topic in which there is broad bipartisan agreement on the need for a tougher line.

“I think it’s the result of the realization that our 40-year assumption that a richer China would be a freer China proved not to be the case,” Gates said. “The question is, how do you get tough with China, and how do you prevent a rivalry or a competition from becoming a military confrontation? Both sides know that would be catastrophic for each country.”

Gates told Welsh that China’s instruments of power have strengthened, while those of the United States have ”withered.”

“One of the things that’s missing in our dealings with China is our failure to build a consensus among our allies on how to deal with this country,” he said.

Card, the recently named interim CEO of the George & Barbara Bush Foundation, joined Gates and Welsh in the online conversation a bit after 6 p.m. and alternated between asking Gates questions and sharing stories and insight of his own. Card and Gates shared stories about the elder President Bush’s sense of humor, leadership style and dedication to service.

Gates said the most enjoyable job of his career was his time as deputy national security adviser from 1989 to 1991, before he became CIA director.

“Spending that amount of time with the president during such a historic period was just an unbelievable experience,” Gates said. “A very close runner-up was my time as president of Texas A&M.”

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