Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the thirty-ninth prime minister of Denmark (2000–2009) and the twelfth secretary general of NATO (2009–14), joins Peter Robinson to discuss why America is the only proper policeman for the world. He argues that America’s failure to act, especially in cases like Syria, can lead to more harm than intervention. He determines that the problems the United States faced in the Iraq after the war were not because the United States intervened in the first place but because President Obama decided to pull the troops out too early in 2011. He also argues that NATO allies have begun spending closer to the requisite 2 percent of their budgets on defense due to Russia’s encroaching on Ukraine. Rasmussen believes it would be dangerous for America to allow Putin to disrupt the international order and retake lost territory without a response.
Rasmussen shares his personal assessments of leaders he has come to know personally, including George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. Additionally, Rasmussen offers a bold plan for a strengthened American and European alliance, joined by like-minded democracies (not the UN), to create a military, political, and economic bulwark against the forces of tyranny. Rasmussen argues that, like it or not, America is the world’s indispensable world leader and must act as the world’s policeman because no other country can. If America steps back and leaves a leadership vacuum, then someone else will step in and be harder to deal with down the road. The world learned this lesson from World War II, which is important to remember in today’s political climate. Rasmussen emphasizes that the United States cannot escape its fate as the world’s policeman and global leader.
Peter Robinson: Does the United States of America have any friends at all left in Europe? One that we can prove. With us today, a former Prime Minister of Denmark and Secretary General of NATO, who has written a book to remind Americans that the United States plays, in his view, an indispensable role in the world and to remind Americans that we must do our duty. Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Uncommon Knowledge now.
Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. The son of farmers, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was the first member of his family to attend a university. In 1998, he became leader of the Danish Liberal Party. The Liberal Party in Denmark is the center right, or conservative party. From 2001 to 2008, he served as Prime Minister of Denmark. After stepping down from Danish politics, Mr. Rasmussen became Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, a position in which he served from 2009 to 2014. Mr. Rasmussen now devotes himself to Rasmussen Global, a consulting firm, and he is with us today to discuss his new book, "The Will to Lead: America's Indispensable Role in the Global Fight for Freedom."
Prime Minister Rasmussen, welcome.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen: Thank you. My pleasure.
Let me quote from The Will to Lead, "The world needs a policeman. The only capable, reliable, and desirable candidate for that position is the United States." Prime Minister, why us?
I would say you were destined to lead as the only superpower on earth with a global reach. You could also ask who else? Could it be the UN? No. The UN is too weak and too ineffective. Could it be Russia? No. Russia doesn’t have global trust because of the assertiveness towards its neighbors. Could it be China? No. A communist country couldn’t achieve a broad, global trust. Only the United States can act as the world's policeman, and we need a policeman.
All right. George W. Bush in Iraq. I'd like to talk about George W. Bush in Iraq, Barack Obama, Syria. You present these as, in effect, case studies in "The Will to Lead", so President Bush. When you were Prime Minister of Denmark, you write you concluded after a meeting with George W. Bush that he was determined to act as the world's policeman, and that reassured you. Is that correct?
Yeah, that’s correct. I still think it was the right thing to do.
To invade Iraq.
To invade Iraq, to get rid of a ruthless dictator like Saddam Hussein, and I think we should recall that the problems we have seen afterwards in Iraq are not due to the invasion in 2003, but rather, the premature U.S. withdrawal in 2011.
I'm quoting you again, "The Will to Lead", "Our mistake was not that we did too much militarily in Iraq. It was that we did too little politically afterward." All right. Let me ask you ... I'm conscious that in the current presidential campaign when there were still 17 candidates for the Republican nomination, the only one who defended the invasion of Iraq at all with any real conviction was Jeb Bush.
Once he stepped down, the 16 remaining ... It was effectively a given that the invasion was a mistake, so let me ask it this way. Almost 5,000 Americans killed in Iraq, over 100,000 Iraqis killed. Iraq today, hard even to describe it as a functioning country. The Kurds seem to have their enclave. There's an Iraqi government. There's ISIS in control of some territory. I'm trying to tease out what it is that you approve of and where the mistakes got made. If you knew then what we all know now, would it still have been the correct decision to invade Iraq?
Absolutely, yes. The reason why we joined the coalition was that Saddam Hussein didn’t comply with a number of UN Security Council resolutions, and in my opinion, then as well as now, that must have some consequences. That’s formally our reason to join the coalition, but on top of that, you should always ask yourself the following question. If we take action, it will have a cost, but if we don’t take action, the cost will be even higher. I think the current tragedy in Syria is an excellent example that you can sit idly by on the fence, you can watch what is happening, now 300,000 people are killed.
In Syria, and more than 10 million people displaced out of a population of 22 million. It's a real human tragedy. The cost of inaction will very often show to be much greater than the cost of action.
We'll come back to Syria in just a moment, but I want to close out Iraq. You just described the reason Denmark joined the coalition. The mistake in this country was that the president relied too much on the argument that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. From your point of view, Saddam Hussein should have been removed even apart from that argument. Is that correct?
All right. Then the conduct of the war ... That three-year period, almost three or four years when the war went sideways, the United States clearly had no idea how to set up something that would function to replace Saddam Hussein.
Those are two specific mistakes that do not, in your judgment, undermine the argument that the United States and Denmark and others in the coalition were correct to go in. The police action was necessary.
You're 100% right, and I think the lesson to be learned from the Iraq invasion was that any military operation should always be accompanied by a well thought-through political strategy for how to handle the post-conflict situation. In Iraq, problems started after 2011. We all remember that in 2011, the U.S. left Iraq, and the then Prime Minister Maliki pursued very sectarian policies. He marginalized the Sunni community, and many Sunnis joined what eventually became the Islamic State.
The United States under Barack Obama pulled out of Iraq too soon?
I think it was too soon. Of course, we have to remember that the Iraqi government wouldn’t provide the necessary security guarantees for the U.S., so it was anyway difficult for the U.S. to stay. On top of that, we know that President Obama had promised to withdraw from Iraq.
Just it's so disconcerting to hear a European make this argument, but the argument you're ... I want to make sure I'm understanding. The argument you're making is not that Iraq demonstrates America should not exercise strength in the world. It's that America should do so shrewdly and should, if anything, in Iraq, have exercised strength. It should have retained a presence even longer. You want, European though you are, distinguished member of the European elite though you are, you want more America in the world and not less.
This brings us to President Obama and Syria. Again, you go into this in your book The Will to Lead. Syria and the red line, let me set this up very quickly. Civil war in Syria begins in 2011 with protests against the Syrian regime. Then there's a brutal response by Bashar al-Assad and his forces. Early on, President Obama warns that if the regime uses chemical weapons, it would cross a red line. That was the phrase he used, red line, prompting American action. There are instances where they may have used chemical weapons, but small instances, uncertain intelligence and so forth, but in the summer of 2013, an unmistakable event takes place. The regime undoubtedly uses chemical weapons and it kills more than 1,000 civilians. The response of the Obama Administration was just words. You make of that what?
Yeah. I make, so two lessons to be learned. Firstly, when an American president define red lines, he or she should act if they are crossed. That didn’t happen, and the lack of action undermined not only the words of President Obama but also the credibility of American foreign policy. That’s the first lesson. The second lesson to be learned is more positive. That is when eventually the president threatened to strike Syria, then all of a sudden, President Assad realized now it's better to engage in a political and diplomatic solution, and in moved the UN and out moved the chemical weapons. It's a clear example that if you just threaten to use your military force, you can actually facilitate political and peaceful solutions.
Okay. Prime Minister, for the threshold question that applies to both Iraq and Syria. Shia versus Sunni, tribe against tribe, strongman rule, all of this has been going on in the Arab world for century after century after century. Only one instance of democracy in the Arab world, and that’s Lebanon for about ten years, and in that case, it was when the Maronite Christians were in charge of the country, not the Muslims. You’ve got Arab Islam and zero instances of democracy. Why should Americans care about Iraq or Syria or this endless internecine fighting among them? Why should we care?
Because we want peace, and one of the best ways to achieve peace is to grant people more freedom. President George W. Bush launched what he called a freedom agenda. I strongly supported that agenda because the essence of it is the desire for freedom is universal. It's a basic desire in all people to get more opportunities to live your life, to fulfill your dreams, et cetera. I refuse to accept the argument that there are certain peoples in the world that are not well suited for democracy, so they are better off if they are suppressed by a dictator. I would never accept that.
We will have to introduce and promote democracy where we can, but I think we have lessons to be learned, namely, democracy, a real democracy, is not just a majority vote. It's not just to organize elections. To have a real democracy, you need to infuse what I will call a democratic political culture to strengthen the civil society, to tell people, and they will accept, that democracies also protect minority rights, for instance.
We should be more patient. Remember that we spent generations to develop our democracy. How can we expect Arab countries without democratic tradition to turn into democracies overnight?
All right. Europe, a quotation and then a statistic for you, Prime Minister. The quotation comes once again from your book The Will to Lead, "On both sides of the U.S. political spectrum, politicians are railing against free riders and dismissing NATO as an unnecessary cost. We are no free riders," you write. Okay. Here's your statistic. Brace yourself. NATO requires member states to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense. The United States does so, and of the 27 other member NATO states, only four, the United Kingdom, Estonia, Poland, and Greece, spend the required 2%. Denmark, I don’t know the statistics under you, but under 2015, which was the last year I was able to find, Denmark spent 1.2% of GDP on defense. Prime Minister, just on the mathematics, you are free riders. Donald Trump is on to something. For goodness sake, Europe is a rich place with a big population and it ought to be able to spend some money on its own defense.
Yeah. I agree. Yeah, I really agree. I think the Europeans should invest more in our common security, and the good news is that actually, we decided to do so at the NATO Summit in September 2014. All 28 allied leaders subscribed to the pledge that within the next decade, they will reach the 2% benchmark. Further, the good news is that here in 2016, the Europeans invest much more in defense than they did in 2015. We have reversed the trend, I think not least, thanks to President Putin. He has-
I was about to say yes.
Yeah. His aggression against Ukraine has really demonstrated to all European leaders now we need to reverse the trend, and this is happening.
If I may I add?
I would also argue that compared to the Cold War, you have seen much more European engagement. During the Cold War, you didn’t see one single European soldier deployed out of area. After the end of the Cold War, you have seen a lot of Europeans deployed. For instance, in Afghanistan, one-third of all troops in Afghanistan were from partner countries, which has relieved the U.S. for that burden. The Libya operation is another example where the Europeans took the lead. A majority of sorties over Libya were conducted by Europeans. It's an example that Europeans can do more, and they should do more.
All right. When you were Prime Minister and again as Secretary General of NATO, you dealt with Vladimir Putin on a number of occasions. What does he want? What does he want?
President Putin's great master plan is to restore Russian greatness in the former Soviet territory. To that end, he needs to keep his neighbors weak, dependent on the Kremlin, and he will prevent them from joining the EU and NATO. That’s why you see a series of simmering or frozen conflicts in his near neighborhood. This goes well beyond Ukraine. This is not just about Crimea or the Donbass region in Ukraine. It's also about Transnistria in Moldova. It's about Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. It's about Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia. All these conflicts serve the same purpose. He will restore Russian greatness.
Now let's give him what he wants. For the purposes of a mental thought experiment, let's give him what he wants. He's got Crimea. Keep it. He wants the eastern third of Ukraine. He may have it. Even the Baltic states. This is a terrifying thing to say, but let's let him have some hegemony or more influence over the Baltics. Denmark did perfectly well during the Cold War when the Soviet Union had all of that locked down. The United States did all right during the Cold War. We are very happy that the Cold War is over, but Vladimir Putin is saying he'd like to restore greatness, but he's not a communist. He doesn’t have global ambitions. He has regional ambitions. Isn't that right? He just wants to reclaim. If he took all that ... I won't even ask you from a Dane's point of view. From an American's point of view, what would be so bad about that?
Yeah. I would mention at least two arguments. Firstly, he is threatening the rules-based international order that you created so successfully after the Second World War. President Truman created rules. He created institutions. We have all followed those rules.
United Nations, NATO, the Marshall Plan.
The World Bank.
World Bank, yes.
International Monetary Fund, the International Trade Organization, et cetera, et cetera. All these institutions have contributed to creating an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity. Now, Mr. Putin is challenging that American-led world order. That is, he's also challenging the United States, but that’s only one argument. The next is if we just let him have what he wants, then we would violate the basic principle that all nations on earth have an inherited right to decide their alliance affiliations themselves, to decide with whom they want to trade and negotiate and with whom they don’t want. It's a fact that the Baltic states wanted membership of NATO. They wanted their independence. It's a fact that Georgia and Ukraine, they have a long-term goal to join our organizations. Why shouldn’t they? Why should we allow a scrupulous dictator or an autocrat to decide their destiny? Of course, that wouldn’t be acceptable, in my opinion.
All right. Let me push one more time, if I may. You mentioned Harry Truman. You devote chapters of this book to Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, all of whom, in your view, are exemplars of the American will to lead, skill on the international scene, projecting strength, establishing rules. But all three were Cold War presidents, Prime Minister. During the Cold War, the United States was itself under geopolitical threat. It made perfect sense for us to bear most of the burden of defending Europe during the Cold War because in defending Denmark, we were defending ourselves.
The Cold War is long over. Vladimir Putin doesn’t have the same kind of globalist aspirations that the old Communists had. They were committed, at least formally. We can argue about whether Brezhnev really believed it. Khrushchev believed it. Stalin believed it that there would come in time a worldwide communist revolution. Putin doesn’t even pretend to believe any such thing. Why don’t we Americans just leave Vladimir Putin to you and Angela Merkel and the Poles and the Hungarians? We don’t even have to rely on the French or the Italians or the Spanish, those unreliable lackeys. You're a rich country. You ought to be able to handle Vladimir Putin. Why is that argument wrong?
Yeah. It's a good question. I would argue there are three reasons why it's in America's self-interest to be the world's policeman. Firstly, if you do not strike the enemies on their soil, they will hit you on your soil. That’s exactly what we saw 9/11, so better go overseas and strike your enemies. That’s one thing.
Secondly, prevention is better and less expensive than cure or treatment. Also, in international politics, it's a better deal for the U.S. to prevent conflicts, to knock down conflicts when they are still small instead of sitting idly by on the fence and see them grow and grow and at last, they will be unmendable. We saw that in the Second World War.
Finally, it is in America's self-interest to uphold the world order you created, President Truman created after the Second World War because when they free trade, when nations follow certain rules, the United States prospers. For these three reasons, you should act as the world's policeman.
Prime Minister, spend a few moments as we close here, spend a few moments developing some advice for the next president, whoever he or she may be. Two different views, if I may, and they exist in two different quotations. The first quotation, this is something I came across when I was looking around for, thinking about American International. I read your book and then did some research. Irving Kristol, do you know the name, Irving Kristol? He was a important political thinker. He's now the late Irving Kristol, but he wrote this in 1990 as the Cold War was ending.
The question was, what is the purpose for American foreign policy now that the Cold War is over? "The only innovative trend in our foreign policy thinking at the moment derives from a group who believe there is an American mission to promote democracy all over the world. This is a superficially attractive idea, but it takes only a few moments of thought to realize how empty of substance and how full of presumption it is. In the entire history of the United States, we have successfully exported our democratic institutions to only two nations, Japan and Germany, after war and occupation. Why should anyone think we can do so anywhere else?" Close quote.
Here's the second quotation. That’s one.
Here's the second quotation. That, by the way, dates from 1990, so this view is not ... It's been there for a long time. It predates Donald Trump is what I'm trying to say. Here's the second quotation. This is from the second inaugural address of your friend George W. Bush, "The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world, so it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." Close quote.
On the one hand, be realistic for goodness' sake. We've only established democracies abroad twice, and that was after a brutal war and long occupations. On the other, the American mission, the world can only be safe if we establish democracy everywhere.
Which view should the next president take?
The latter. Clearly ...
You don’t even hesitate.
No, no, I don’t. I will give the following piece of advice to the next president, whoever it might be. Firstly, in the inaugural address, the president should with his or her own words convey the exactly same message as President Kennedy did in his inaugural address on the 21st of January 1961. He said, "We Americans are ready to pay any price, to bear any burden, to defend our friends, to oppose all foes, and protect liberty." I think that’s the strongest commitment to American global leadership you have ever heard. That should be the first the next president does.
Next, the next president should convene the congressional leaders soon after the inauguration to achieve, I would say, a consensus on the main lines in American foreign and defense policy because it weakens the U.S. when the partisan policies spread to foreign and security policy. Finally, the president should within the first 100 days convene all democratic leaders in the world to establish what I call an alliance for democracy. In my book, I argue that we need that alliance of democracy to-
As distinct from the United Nations?
This is a club only for democracy?
Only for democracies to counter still more aggressive autocrats.
All right. The Will to Lead, just a final couple of questions. "In recent years," you write, "it has become politically incorrect to speak of American exceptionalism. This is unfortunate," you write. Now let me quote President Obama, "I believe in American exceptionalism just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." Close quote.
How do you reply to President Obama?
Hmm. Of course, there is some truth in what President Obama said, but America is truly exceptional in many ways. In my book, I point to, for instance, the way you developed your democratic institutions, and no other country on earth had done that. That’s why I think the United States is well-suited to demonstrate global leadership because you have very solid, strong democratic institutions. That’s why I argue that the United States is an exceptional nation, but you should always remember that with that exceptionalism also comes exceptional responsibilities and obligations, including being the world's policeman. We know from experience that when the U.S. retreats or is perceived to retreat, the U.S. will leave behind a vacuum. That vacuum will be filled by the bad guys.
Prime Minister, how popular are your views in Europe? You're getting fairly tough sledding just telling Americans that they're an exceptional nation. Germany now, the polls indicate that half or somewhat more than half of Germans are negative about the United States. What is the response in Europe?
Yeah, but it's as divided as you will see here in the United States. It's not an easy sell to tell people that we need more American global leadership, but what is the alternative? The alternative is no direction, no action, no leadership in the world at all. We know from experience that if you want things to be done, ask the Americans.
You're not fighting a lost cause, but you're fighting a cause that needs to be fought for. That’s the way you are.
I wonder if I could ask you to close our program today, if you would, by reading a passage from your book "The Will to Lead".
I'll be pleased to do that. Okay. Yeah. "If America chooses not to intervene early in crisis and support the friends of freedom, it will end up having to intervene later, when the enemies of freedom begin to strike at American interests. America is destined to lead. The ancient Greeks believed that you cannot escape your destiny and that the gods will punish you if you try. America should heed the advice of the ancients, play its role as a global leader with conviction and avoid the unnecessary pain and suffering that come with resisting your destiny. America cannot escape its fate."
Thank you. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former Prime Minister of Denmark and Secretary General of NATO and the author of "The Will to Lead: America's Indispensable Role in the Global Fight for Freedom". Thank you.
For Uncommon Knowledge and the Hoover Institution, I'm Peter Robinson.