Bill Richardson photo

Speech: The New Realism and the Rebirth of American Leadership

February 08, 2007

Thank you very much for that kind introduction.

In recent years, America's foreign policy has been guided more by dogma than by facts, more by ideology than by history.

More by wishful thinking than by reality.

This administration's lack of realism has led us to a dangerous place. In an era of terrorism, they have squandered our military power, undermined our diplomatic leverage, and depleted our treasury. They have emboldened our enemies and isolated us from our friends. They have confused our moral compass and compromised our national security.

We need to take a different path. A path based on reality, not unilateralist illusions.

A path that understands that the gravest dangers that threaten us today do not threaten only us -- and that therefore to pursue our national interest and meet these challenges we must work with our friends, our enemies, and everyone in between.

This is a path not of hard words, but of hard work. A path of moral strength, not pious judgments. A path of strong diplomacy, backed up by a strong military and strong alliances.

This is the path of American leadership.

A path that I believe can lead to an Axis of Reason to confront urgent global problems. President Bush doesn't seem to understand that success in foreign policy requires both a strong military and smart diplomacy. Because while diplomacy without power is weak, power without diplomacy is blind.

Before I became Governor, I had been a Congressman, America's Ambassador to the United Nations, and Secretary of Energy. Over the past 15 years, I also have led many diplomatic missions where I have stood toe-to-toe with some of the world's toughest customers, including Saddam, Castro, the North Koreans, and, most recently, the Sudanese leader Bashir.

I have gotten all these tough guys to do what I wanted them to do because I put my disdain for them aside, and talked to them. You need to know your enemy if you want him to cooperate.

I know that even bad guys will listen to you when you hold a big stick in one hand and a carrot in the other -- and you show them a face-saving way out of the dilemma you have just created for them.

Talking to people is no guarantee of success, but refusing to talk to them is usually a precursor to failure. As JFK said, we should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate.

I also have worked closely with some extraordinary leaders, such as Bill Clinton, Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela . I know that great leaders are guided by shining ideals -- but that they are never blinded by ideology. They know that to pursue a vision to make the world a better place, you first must see the world as it really is.

To restore American leadership, we need to reject dogma, and to embrace a New Realism in our foreign policy. An enlightened and ethical Realism for the 21st century. A Realism that looks at the world through cool eyes, but that is also inspired by ardent principles.


America is a great nation that knows how to defend itself. We are also a nation that has been willing to pay in blood as well as in coin for what we believe is the right thing to do and we have a sense that in order to do right by ourselves, we must be ready to do right by others. We defend ourselves most effectively when we lead others.

And it has been our willingness to seek and find common ground, to blend our interests with those of others, which has been the key to our long history of effective leadership. Realists like Truman and Eisenhower understood that defending Europe and ourselves from the Soviets required a strong military. But they also understood that we could not lead our allies if they did not wish to follow.

These and subsequent American Presidents knew the importance of moral leadership. Our remarkable military and our prosperous economy gave us the power to lead. But our commitment to human dignity – including our willingness to struggle against our own prejudices -- inspired others to follow.

If America is to lead again, we need to remember this history, and to rebuild our overextended military, increase the size of our army, revive our alliances, and restore our reputation as a nation which respects international law, human rights and civil liberties.

There is no time to lose. For we live in perilous times, in which policies shaped by fantasy and wishful thinking have already wreaked havoc, and court further disaster.

Six trends are transforming our world. We need to understand them, and respond to all of them simultaneously.

One trend, of course, is fanatical Jihadism bursting from an increasingly unstable and violent greater Middle East. This trend had been growing for years, but the invasion and collapse of Iraq have fueled its growth.

A second trend is the growing power and sophistication of both non-state and state-linked criminal and terrorist enterprises capable of disrupting the global economy and trafficking in weapons of mass destruction.

Together these two trends raise the terrible specter of nuclear terrorism. We know that Al Qaeda has tried to get nuclear weapons. We know that Pakistan's A.Q. Khan sold nuclear materials to rogue states, and we know that there are former Soviet nuclear weapons which are poorly-secured. The existence of a black market in nuclear materials is well-documented. The proliferation of nuclear weapons to new countries has increased further the opportunities for Jihadists to obtain them.

A third trend transforming our world is the rapid rise of Asian economic and military power, above all in China and India. And a fourth trend is the re-emergence of Russia, as an increasingly assertive global and regional player, with a large nuclear arsenal, control over energy resources -- and tempted by militant nationalism.

The simultaneous rise of India, China, and Russia requires our thoughtful attention and strategic leadership, so that these powerful nuclear-armed nations may be integrated into a stable global order.

A fifth trend transforming our world is the simultaneous increase in global economic interdependence and financial imbalances -- unaccompanied by the growth of institutional capacities to manage these realities.

Globalization has made our economy more vulnerable to resource constraints and financial shocks originating beyond our borders. I am particularly concerned about the possibility of a global energy crisis or a collapse of the US dollar.

And the sixth trend we face is that of urgent and worsening health and environmental problems which are truly global in scope. Global warming and pandemics like AIDS do not respect national borders. And poverty, ethnic conflict and overpopulation also spill over borders, feeding what Moises Naim has called the "five wars of globalization" (over drugs, arms trafficking, money laundering, intellectual property and alien smuggling).

These six transformative trends present us with problems which are international in their origins and which will require international solutions.

And they cry out for American leadership. If the world succeeds in preventing nuclear terrorism, defeating Jihadism, integrating rising powers into a stable order, protecting global financial market stability, and fighting pandemics and global warming, America surely will deserve much of the credit. If the world fails to meet these challenges, America just as surely will deserve much of the blame.

We must confront these challenges with ALL our resources -- from our military to our economy to our capacity to inspire others to follow us.

This New Realist vision for re-launching American leadership in the 21st century will entail several steps:

1) First and foremost, we must repair our alliances. This means restoring respect and appreciation for our allies, and for the democratic values which unite us.

2) We must renew our commitment to international law and multilateral cooperation. This means expanding the Security Council to reflect international realities, and it means ethical reform at the UN, so that this vital institution can meet the challenges of the 21st century. It means more third world debt relief, and a World Bank focused on poverty-reduction. It means shifting aid from loans to grants for the poorest countries. It means reviving the Doha round of trade talks and seeking agreements which seriously address wage disparities, worker rights, and the environment. It means more resources for the IMF, so that it can protect the international economy from financial panics and shocks.

And it means respecting the Geneva conventions and joining the International Criminal Court.

The United States once was – and again must be – a human rights example to which others aspire. We must be impeccable in our own behavior, and we must reward countries which respect the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. And we must negotiate, constructively but firmly, with those who do not.

Because we care about human rights, we need to start taking Africa seriously. The two most horrendous recent genocides have taken place in Rwanda and now Darfur. History teaches us that if the United States does not take the lead on genocide, no one else will. We need to step up to the plate on Darfur, and let the world know that when genocide threatens, the United States will lead the world to stop it.

3) The United States also must be the leader, not the laggard, in global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We must join the Kyoto protocol on global warming, and then go well beyond it. We must lead the world with a man-on-the-moon effort to improve efficiency and to commercialize clean, alternative technologies. We must cut our fossil fuel consumption dramatically and rapidly, and get others, including China and India, to follow us to a sustainable energy future.

4) We need to stop treating diplomatic engagement with others like a reward for good behavior. The Bush administration's refusal to engage obnoxious regimes has only encouraged and strengthened their most paranoid and hard-line tendencies. The futility of this policy is most tragically obvious in regard to Iran and North Korea, who responded to Washington's snubs and threats with intensification of their nuclear programs.

American leadership means talking even with regimes we don't like, so that we can show them the real costs and benefits that will result from their choices.

Sometimes diplomacy demands that you talk tough. But to do that, you have to at least be talking.

We also need to engage Russia and China more effectively, strategically, and systematically than we have, as we encourage them to work with us to build a stable, peaceful world.

5) We need to focus on the real security threats, from which Iraq has so dangerously diverted our attention. This means doing the hard work to build strong coalitions to fight terrorists and to stop nuclear proliferation.

Most urgently, we need to lock down ALL of the world's fissionable material. Quickly. Before terrorists get their hands on a nuclear bomb.

To accomplish this, we must increase funding for the Nunn-Lugar program to secure former Soviet nuclear weapons. And we must work aggressively with our Pakistani allies to make sure that, no matter what happens in the future, Pakistan's nuclear arsenal cannot fall into the hands of Jihadists.

We need better human intelligence and better international intelligence and law enforcement coordination to prevent nuclear trafficking. And we must do the hard diplomatic work to unite the world, including Russia and China, to contain the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, as we provide these nations with incentives and face-saving ways to renounce nuclear weapons.

And if we want other countries to take the nuclear non-proliferation treaty seriously, we need to start taking it seriously ourselves. This means leading a global effort to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world – including our own. And we need to upgrade and tighten the NPT to prevent states from legally developing their nuclear capabilities, and then opting out of the treaty as they rush to build bombs.

We also must open an ideological front in the war against Jihadism. There is a civil war within Islam between extremists and moderates -- and we need to stop helping our enemies in that civil war.

We need to start showing, both through our words and through our deeds, that this is not, as the Jihadists claim, a clash of civilizations. Rather, it is a clash between civilization and barbarity.

We need to present the Arab and Muslim worlds with a better vision than the apocalyptic fantasy of the Jihadists. A vision of peace, prosperity, tolerance, and respect for human dignity.

For this to be credible, we need to live up to our own ideals. Prisoner abuse, torture, secret prisons, renditions, and evasion of the Geneva conventions must have no place in our policy.

If we want Muslims to open to us, we should start by closing Guantanamo.

We also need to pressure Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other friends to reform their education systems -- which five years after 9-11 are still incubators of anti-Americanism. And we must give a louder, more systematic voice to moderate American Muslims, so that they can speak the truth about us and be heard.

And we need to re-engage the Middle-East peace process, so that we can deprive the Jihadists of their most effective propaganda tool. We must not waver in our support for Israel, as we use all our sticks and carrots to strengthen Palestinian moderates and to promote a two-state solution.

We are spending $2 billion per week on Iraq, but we are not doing nearly enough to protect our cities, nuclear power plants, shipping and ports from terrorist attack. We must spend more to recruit, equip and train more first responders, and we must drastically improve our public health facilities, which five years after 9-11 are not ready for a biological attack. And we need to allocate Homeland Security dollars to where they are needed—to the population centers and facilities that we know Al Qaeda targets. It is unpatriotic and irresponsible to turn homeland security dollars into pork.

6) The United States of America also needs to start paying attention to the Americas. To our own back yard. Illegal trafficking of drugs and persons across the Mexican border threaten our national security. We need both better border security and comprehensive immigration reform – reform that provides for a guest worker program with a realistic and earned path to legalization. And we must abandon this notion of building a fence along the border. No fence ever built has stopped history and this one wouldn't either. It just won't work. Let's use that money for real border enforcement—and I have proposed doubling the number of border guards to do just that. Real security, real results at the fraction of the financial or political cost of building a fence.

And to reduce both illegal immigration and anti-American populism in Latin America, we must work with reform-minded governments to alleviate poverty and promote equitable development. We need to strengthen energy cooperation in the region, as we foster democracy and fair trade.

And fostering democracy must include Cuba. We should reverse Bush policies restricting remittances, and travel to visit loved ones. Raul Castro has started to make some overtures toward the United States. Let's challenge him to show his sincerity by releasing Cuban political prisoners.

7) America needs to lead the global fight against poverty – which is the basis of so much violence. We must promote equitable trade agreements, to create more jobs in all countries. And through our example and our diplomacy we must encourage all rich countries honor their UN Millennium goal commitments. A Commission on Implementation of Sustainable Development Goals, composed of world leaders and prominent experts, should be created to recommend ways of meeting Millennium commitments.

America needs to lead donors on debt relief, shifting aid from loans to grants, and toward greater focus on primary health care and affordable vaccines. We should pressure pharmaceutical companies to allow expanded use of generic drugs, and we should stimulate public-private partnerships to reduce costs and enhance access to anti-malarial drugs and bed nets.

Most importantly, America should spearhead a multilateral Marshall Plan for the Middle East and North Africa. For a small fraction of the cost of the Iraq war, which has made us so many enemies, we could make many friends. A crucial effort in fighting terrorism must be support for public education in the Muslim world, which is the best way to mitigate the role of madrasas that foment extremism.

Development alleviates the injustice and lack of opportunity that proponents of violence and terrorism exploit. To those who say we cannot afford an aid program to build pro-American sentiment in the developing world, I say we cannot afford not to.

The challenges facing America today are great. We need to learn from the failures of the Bush administration, open our eyes, and see the world as it is – so that we can lead others to make it a better, safer place. This is the New Realist vision for the new century.

I believe we can do it. America can earn back the respect, trust, and admiration of the world. We can and will once again be the respected leader of nations. Our national security and our future depend upon it.

Thank you very much.

Bill Richardson, Speech: The New Realism and the Rebirth of American Leadership Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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