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General Colin Powell on the American diplomatic toolbox

How the tools of diplomacy work complementary with each other to solve a particular problem: Vietnam, George Shultz, Force & Diplomacy. General Colin Powell in conversation with Walter Isaacson, President and CEO of The Aspen Institute.

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Video transcript

i'm walter isaacson from the Aspen Institute and I'm here with General Colin Powell former four-star general national security adviser chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State we're talking about the toolbox of American diplomacy what tools do you have when you conduct diplomacy and I wanted you to run through when you had each of those positions which of the tools did you use well I'm not crazy about the term toolboxes if you take a different tool out they're all interchangeable I mean and they all work complementary with each other so when you talk about the toolbox in that toolbox you have diplomacy you have economics you have sanctions and you have the military and as my predecessor George Shultz used to say all the time you don't have diplomacy without the ability to suggest that force is behind that diplomacy at some point and you shouldn't have force that exists independently from diplomacy and so I think that even though it's described as a toolbox don't think you just pull one out you pull out a system you pull out a group of tools that you can use to solve a particular problem that you are facing diplomacy is basically how do I solve a problem in a way that is without hostility or necessarily the use of force and how do I do it in a way I have always tried to approach it at both sides walk away saying we got what we had to have you know we'd have not violated our principles although we had to make some adjustments and we had to compromise they've been for secretaries of state including yourself throughout who were really from the military colonel Stimson general marshal yourself how did being a soldier affect your thinking about diplomacy we have to remember that even before he became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff I had been national security advisor to a president and so I think I was raised understanding that trying to solve things strictly by force without first trying diplomacy is not the way to go and that has informed my thinking since I became a more senior officer I came out of Vietnam understanding that we didn't succeed because we never really understood the political environment and we really didn't understand the goal of the North Vietnamese which was a goal of nationalism or so and communism and so I always went through the rest of my career as a soldier and as a diplomat thinking always make sure we understand the political goal we're trying to achieve either with diplomacy or force or the combination of the two and then when you have understood it and everybody gets it then apply the tools necessary to achieve it and those tools are diplomatic they're economic they are public relations there are so many different things but always with force but I'm well known for saying force should be last the actual use of that force but if you use it use it in a firm decisive manner what other lessons did you take from Vietnam that these young men and women we sent over there for these kinds of conflicts are not boots on the ground I detest the term there are young men and women on the ground and that those of us in a position of leadership have the solemn responsibility to our nation and to our their families to make sure that we have set clear objectives for them to achieve and that we give them everything they need to achieve those objectives and not just see them as tools or boots on the ground that perhaps is the most defining lesson I took away having seen some of my college classmates killed over there guys who were in my fraternity I was injured twice not seriously fortunately and so realize the seriousness of getting into armed conflict and do everything you possibly can to avoid it but if you can't avoid it don't fiddle around go do it do it decisively but always with the clear objective you were National Security Adviser and then became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff explain to us the difference in those roles and your duty to the President as National Security Advisor I had the responsibility as pulling together the national security system to support the president I was not a secretary of state or a Secretary of Defense I was a staff officer that helped the departments get their job done I used to say to my staff all the time you work for the president but you're also working for the vice president Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense that's what the national security staff is about and so I'm basically a very good staff officer and you were supposed to be an honest broker I'm an honest broker but I also have an opinion and after doing the honest broker work I would always then tell the president what I thought he should do so my recommendation went in but it was always an informed recommendation based on what the others had said in our meetings very open collegial meetings being a soldier and also being a diplomat people frequently asked me as you just did well what's the difference well in one they call me general and the other one they call you mr. secretary but otherwise all the leadership things that I learned over the years and I'd been trained to apply work just as well in the State Department or at the White House at the NSC as they did as commanding a corps 70,000 soldiers in Germany because it's basically human interaction leadership giving people something to believe in giving people something that is worth believing in and letting them know that you will support them you trust them and they should trust you is there a fundamental difference though between being a staffer like national security adviser and being a constitutional officer like Secretary of State even the Secretary of State is a adviser to the president of course the most powerful adviser to the President on diplomacy but I never lost sight of the fact that I also had to work with the other departments of government and that my ultimate loyalty was to the nation and then to the President of the United States and so I always made sure that the presidents I worked for him at the senior level either as chairman national security adviser or a secretary of state knew that my job was to give them my best advice whether they liked it or not thank you