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James Baker talks U.S. power during Westminster College lecture

Wednesday, September 22, 2010 | 7:57 p.m. CDT; updated 2:56 p.m. CDT, Thursday, September 23, 2010
Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker speaks at Westminster College’s John Findley Green Foundation Lecture on Wednesday. In his hour-long address, titled “The Case for Pragmatic Idealism," Baker discussed ways to successfully implement foreign policy.

FULTON — The United States' world standing as the pre-eminent power has been shaken by the global recession and military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, said James Baker, a former U.S. secretary of state, in a speech Wednesday at Westminster College.

Although he praised the United States' withdrawal from Iraq, he lamented the "lives and treasure" the U.S. lost there. He said "the jury is still out on whether Iraq will be a force for stability in the Middle East."

Baker's 10 maxims for US foreign policy

  • Be comfortable with using your power
  • Do not be the policeman of the world
  • Be prepared to act unilaterally
  • Appreciate the support of your allies
  • Use all means at your disposal to achieve your objectives
  • When a course of action is not producing results, be prepared to change course
  • Accept that you'll have to deal with authoritarian regimes
  • Be prepared to talk to your enemies
  • Be mindful that values are important to policy
  • Keep domestic population support in mind.

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Baker delivered the Green Lecture as the culmination of Westminster's fifth annual Symposium on Democracy, which addressed the causes, variety and consequences of global conflict. The Green Lecture series was made famous in 1946 by Winston Churchill, when he gave his historic "Iron Curtain" speech. About 1,000 people attended Baker's lecture, which was titled "The Case for Pragmatic Realism."

"We are at a critical point in American history," Baker said early in the speech. "Decisions we make now will affect us for generations to come."

Baker outlined what he called the 10 maxims for U.S. engagement in global politics.  He recommended the U.S. be comfortable with wielding its power around the world  but noted at the same time that "we cannot be the world's policeman." He said the U.S. should be prepared to act unilaterally but also be appreciative of its allies. 

"Allies are partners," Baker said. "They can create efficient division of international labor. They help to create a sense of legitimacy for our actions."

Baker, speaking on authoritarian regimes, said the U.S. had no choice but to deal with them sometimes though he wished there were a better way. 

"In a perfect world, perhaps we could only deal with democracies," he said. "But,  unfortunately, this is not a perfect world, and there is no sign it will become one soon."

Baker, who worked as secretary of the treasury under President Ronald Reagan and secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush, told the audience that the U.S. must be willing to talk to its enemies.

"I don't say this because I think talking per se is a good thing," Baker said. "But there is something to be said for bilateral negotiation. Even so staunch an anti-communist as Reagan was prepared to talk to the Soviets. Talking is not appeasing. It was and is good policy."

Baker ended his speech with a discussion of the U.S. economy, which he said was threatened by a "looming debt bomb."

"We have been spending money like drunken sailors," Baker said. "It is critically important that the U.S. gets its fiscal house in order."

If not, Baker warned, the U.S. could see a rapid decline in its standard of living.

"We need to remedy this sooner than later," he said.

Baker called his approach "pragmatic idealism," which, while firmly grounded in value, appreciates the complexity of the world, its hard choices and painful trade-offs.

"We need an optimistic view of man, but one tempered by knowledge of human imperfection," he concluded. "I am absolutely convinced such an approach offers the surest guide and best hope for navigating our country though economic uncertainty."

Despite his worries, Baker said he believes that "rumors of America's demise are greatly exaggerated."


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