Beyond Guns and Steel: Reviving the Nonmilitary Instruments of American Power

By Gates, Robert M. | Military Review, January/February 2008 | Go to article overview

Beyond Guns and Steel: Reviving the Nonmilitary Instruments of American Power


Gates, Robert M., Military Review


IT IS BOTH AN HONOR AND A PLEASURE to be part of the Landon Lecture series-a forum that for more than four decades has hosted some of America's leading intellectuals and statesmen. Considering that, I at first wondered if the invitation was in fact meant for Bill Gates.

It is a pleasure to get out of Washington, D.C., for a little while. I left Washington in 1994, and I was certain, and very happy, that it was the last time I would ever live there. But history, and current events, have a way of exacting revenge on those who say "never." I've now been back in the District of Columbia for close to a year, which reminds me of an old saying: For the first six months you're in Washington, you wonder how the hell you ever got there; for the next six months, you wonder how the hell the rest of them ever got there.

Looking around the world today, optimism and idealism would not seem to have much of a place at the table. There is no shortage of anxiety about where our nation is headed and what its role will be in the 21st century.

But I can remember clearly other times in my life when such dark sentiments were prevalent. In 1957, when I was at Wichita High School East, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, and Americans feared being left behind in the space race and, even more worrisome, the missile race.

In 1968, the first full year I lived in Washington, was the same year as the Tet offensive in Vietnam, where American troop levels and casualties were at their height. Across the nation, protests and violence over Vietnam engulfed America's cities and campuses. On my second day of work as a CIA analyst, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. And then came the 1970s-when it seemed that everything that could go wrong for America did.

Yet, through it all, there was another storyline, one not then apparent. During those same years, the elements were in place and forces were at work that would eventually lead to victory in the Cold War-a victory achieved not by any one party or any single president, but by a series of decisions, choices, and institutions that bridged decades, generations, and administrations. From

* The first brave stand taken by Harry Truman with the doctrine of containment; to

* The Helsinki Accords under Gerald Ford; to

* The elevation of human rights under Jimmy Carter; to

* The muscular words and deeds of Ronald Reagan; to

* The masterful endgame diplomacy of George H.W Bush.

All contributed to bring an evil empire crashing down not with a bang but with a whimper. And virtually without a shot being fired.

In this great effort, institutions, as much as people and policies, played a key role. Many of those key organizations were created 60 years ago this year with the National security Act of 1947-a single act of legislation which established the Central Intelligence Agency, the National security Council, the United States Air Force, and what is now known as the Department of Defense. I mention all this because that legislation and those instruments of national power were designed at the dawn of a new era in international relations for the United States-an era dominated by the Cold War.

The end of the Cold War, and the attacks of September 11, marked the dawn of another new era in international relations-an era whose challenges may be unprecedented in complexity and scope.

In important respects, the great struggles of the 20th century-World War I and World War II and the Cold War-covered over conflicts that had boiled and seethed and provoked wars and instability for centuries before 1914: ethnic strife, religious wars, independence movements, and, especially in the last quarter of the 19th century, terrorism. The First World War was, itself, sparked by a terrorist assassination motivated by an ethnic group seeking independence.

These old hatreds and conflicts were buried alive during and after the Great War. …

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