Some people who have worked hard their entire life retreat to the golf course or get themselves a little beach cottage and park themselves on the sand for their retirement. But when you’ve been a four-term congressman; Counselor to the President; U.S. Ambassador to NATO; White House Chief of Staff; CEO of pharmaceutical giant G.D. Searle; CEO of General Instrument; Chairman of Gilead Sciences; and Secretary of Defense … twice—am I forgetting anything?—you’re always on the hunt for some new mountain to climb, regardless of age.
Chasing small white balls around green fairways was never in the cards for Donald Rumsfeld’s retirement. No sir … he had to find something as intellectually stimulating as the varied career he’s been blessed to enjoy. And find it he did when he partnered his foundation with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) to establish the Central Asia-Caucasus Fellowship Program. Agreed, that’s a mouthful, so let’s break that down. The mission of the program is to bring bright, up-and-coming leaders in both the private and public sectors from Central Asia, the Caucasus, Afghanistan and Mongolia—10 countries in all—to Washington, D.C., to pursue research projects, connect with one another and establish ties with their counterparts in the United States.
Think of all the interesting people a guy like Rumsfeld knows and you’ll get an idea of the caliber of folks the Fellows get to interact with during their six-week program. Who wouldn’t want to sign up? Since the program’s inception in 2008, there have been 17 Fellowship Sessions and 158 alumni of the Fellowship Program. I met the most recent Fellows in early November and found them to be everything their impressive bios said they were. They were smart, focused and full of optimism for their respective countries. They were also very focused on business opportunities and developing a variety of commercial ties ranging from cattle feedlots to phone apps to fast-food franchises.
We caught up with Secretary Rumsfeld for an interview at his office a few blocks from the White House. Now 84, he is pretty much just as he appeared on TV at his last press briefing in the Pentagon 10 years prior. He greeted me sporting a tie and dressed in a fleece vest, which he no doubt wears around his home in Taos, New Mexico, and at his ranch in Montana. I found him easy to converse with—personable and engaging and with a good sense of humor—sort of like talking with a favorite uncle you haven’t seen in five years.
LAWLER: The need is great worldwide. You could have chosen to work with emerging economies in South America or Southeast Asia. Why did you choose to work with this region?
RUMSFELD: One day I was in Lithuania meeting with their president, Valdas Adamkus. He looked at me and said, “You don’t remember me, do you?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Well, in 1962, you were running for the U.S. Congress on the Republican ticket, Cook County, Illinois. I was running for Trustee of the Cook County Sanitary District. You won and I lost.” I said, “You lost? My goodness, you’re President of Lithuania now.” Adamkus had gone back to his home country and become president. As a wrestler on our high school team, we had many kids whose family ties were from Eastern Europe. The point being that many people in the U.S. had strong linkages to people in Eastern Europe so when the Iron Curtain came down family and friends reached out to help.
LAWLER: So you have an affinity toward that region because some of these folks were your neighbors growing up as a kid?
RUMSFELD: Well, not that region. It was Eastern Europe we had an affinity with. We didn’t have many Mongolians or Uzbeks or Kazakhs in the U.S. But since I had a good deal of experience with those countries during my time in government, I thought, “Well those countries are making that same journey as our Eastern European friends had from Communist systems to freer political and economic systems, so we should make an effort to connect with them and be supportive.” During my time in government I spent a good deal of time in the Greater Central Asia region. And I recognize that that part of the world is not really on the radar screen in the U.S., so we decided to see if we could do something through our foundation that would acquaint rising leaders from those 10 countries with the United States and provide some linkages, so we started the Fellowship Program.
Then one day, Dr. Fred Starr from Johns Hopkins said to me, “You know, your idea was a good idea but what has really happened is something larger!” I said, “What?” He said, “Well, the Fellows have created the first real network of young leaders doing important things in those 10 countries.” Prior to this, people from those countries didn’t talk to each other much or visit each other’s countries. Now, if one of their friends visits from Kyrgyzstan for example, they’ll call all the Fellows and have dinner with them. Now for the first time they are talking back and forth and doing business deals and having government discussions.
LAWLER: On that note of business deals, you don’t read a lot about these 10 nations producing innovators in business or industry. Have you found entrepreneurial DNA in the Fellows?
RUMSFELD: Absolutely. And they’re very interested in starting enterprises. Just last night one Fellow told me at dinner about his idea for a consulting group representing all of the countries so that someone from outside their region could connect with their network with extensive linkages to people doing entrepreneurial things in each of the 10 countries. In effect, it would be one stop shopping for outside business people interested in the region.
LAWLER: You mentioned networking. What types of U.S. companies have shown the greatest interest to interact with the Fellowship Program so far?
RUMSFELD: Our groups of Fellows have met with a variety of U.S. businesses and some Fellows have individually been able to make useful business connections through the program, although any business connections that are made are up to the individuals themselves. However, eventually a thought is that our annual conference could become like the annual electronics meeting in Las Vegas where if you’re in that business, you want to be there. People will figure out that this network of talent is important. They start out ages 27 to 40, now they’re 27 to 49 (as the program is in its ninth year). And the Fellows are moving up in their fields—business, government, the academic world and the like. In terms of types of U.S. companies, if you think about it, law firms are interested in this part of the world, investment bankers are interested in this part of the world … and, of course, there’s the agriculture and energy sectors.
LAWLER: What has been the biggest surprise so far since you developed this program?
RUMSFELD: One of the side benefits of our program is that the important and involved people in the U.S. our Fellows meet with are paying more attention to that part of the world. But the real value and surprise is the networking among the Fellows from the 10 nations. They are discovering that that region as a whole has much greater heft than any of the 10 individual countries do.
LAWLER: How can a U.S. company tap into this network and the introductions to the region that the network can offer? Who would they contact? How do they get involved?
RUMSFELD: They can get in touch with our foundation’s executive director and start with the foundation website, rumsfeldfoundation.org. Then they might consider attending one of our annual conferences hosted in one of the 10 countries where we have panels on a variety of topics. Another thing we can do is when CEOs come to D.C., if we have a group of our Fellows in town we can introduce them to the Fellows. So if there is someone who has an interest in that part of the world, we might have our group of Fellows meet with them. Additionally, if a company has an interest in a particular sector or country, we could link them up with our alumni working in that sector or active in a certain country.
LAWLER: Have you come across any importing, exporting or any foreign direct investment success stories as a result of participation in the program?
RUMSFELD: That certainly exists, but of course it’s all anecdotal. Our office is not engaged in it except as a facilitator. That said, through fellowship connections, we have seen companies consider opening branch offices or activities in neighboring countries.
LAWLER: Most Americans know the name Don Rumsfeld from your years of public service but a lot of people don’t know that you were the CEO of some very successful public companies. Be honest now, which did you enjoy more?
RUMSFELD: There wouldn’t be a Rumsfeld Foundation if those companies hadn’t done well! I have enjoyed doing both. I love learning—I loved flying in the Navy. I also enjoyed serving in Congress and in the Executive Branch. Running a pharmaceutical company was quite an experience. Life has been good.
LAWLER: As is probably typical, you seemed to drift in and out of private industry based upon whether the Republicans or the Democrats were in charge of Washington, D.C.
RUMSFELD: I ran Searle, the pharmaceutical company, for I guess eight or nine years, and then I was …
LAWLER: Wasn’t that, though, during the Carter years?
RUMSFELD: It was. When President Ford lost, I went into business. But I stayed in business for 20 years. I ran General Instrument Corporation and Searle and was the chairman of Gilead Sciences. Now, while I was doing that I also did a number of tasks in government. I chaired the Ballistic Missile Threat Commission. I was Reagan’s special envoy for the Middle East. I chaired the Space Commission. For some of these postings I had to take a leave of absence. I also chaired Gilead Sciences for many years, almost from the time it started. Those companies did well and I loved being in business. Business is fascinating.
I like doing different things; working with different people who have different backgrounds, different experiences, different interests. If I am learning, I’m enjoying life.
LAWLER: Your Pentagon news conferences or press briefings were legendary for your ability to think quick on your feet and also for your perspectives.
RUMSFELD: [Chuckling] I have no idea how all those things came out of my mouth.
LAWLER: Along that line, I want to run five names by you for you to just give me a quick observation about each. Ready? Let’s start with Richard Nixon.
RUMSFELD: Strategic. Personally a bit awkward with people … not easy socially, but intellectually focused and attentive to people of talent.
LAWLER: Henry Kissinger.
RUMSFELD: He’s a friend, is brilliant and tough. We go to his birthday party every year in New York.
LAWLER: Condi Rice.
RUMSFELD: Accomplished. Academic.
LAWLER: Colin Powell.
RUMSFELD: Successful. I’ve never dealt with him in business, only in government, and he’s more effective in-person.
LAWLER: Last one: George W.
RUMSFELD: Very different from his father. The country was fortunate he was there on 9-11. Solid, steady.
LAWLER: This might seem like a political question but it’s really, quite frankly, a trade question. If you were president, would you secure the Mexican border and build the wall?
RUMSFELD: I think the concept of the “nation state” is not talked about, understood or valued as much as it should be. It enables the world to have people live different lives, with different cultures, different languages, different approaches, different values, and accept the diversity that exists in the world. If you don’t secure your borders, you don’t have a country. There’s a big difference between people asking to come to our country because they want to assimilate and be a part of our culture and our history and people who come here because they’re fleeing and afraid to stay where they are—not because they value our culture—but because they’re fearful for their lives and for their families. Instead of intending to assimilate and be a part of our culture, they may come and wish to bring with them a culture that’s notably different. Our country has benefited enormously from people coming from across the globe—but, they’ve come largely because they value what we were trying to do here. So I do believe that it is important and proper for our country and any country to decide that people should come in legally, not illegally, and preferably because they share our values.
LAWLER: I’m going to move the conversation to China. China has tens of thousands of entrepreneurs selling products to world markets. How do you see their entrepreneurial prowess coexisting with a Communist regime in the future?
RUMSFELD: I think one has to recognize the reality that if a nation wants high growth, as they do, they’re likely to have to compromise on their political system. It is difficult to have a command economy and a controlled dictatorial political system and simultaneously get the kind of growth that requires people with iPhones and iPads and the ability to access computers and to interact with the rest of the world on a relatively easy basis. So it is possible they’ll hit a fork in the road and something may have to give. Either they’ll make compromises on their authoritarian Communist political system or they’ll opt for a somewhat freer political and freer economic system that may be needed for greater growth and opportunity.
China’s got some challenges; they still have many government corporations that are inefficient, and when they try to change them they have political unrest and they have to bring in security people. There is sizable disparity between economic progress on their coast and the inner portion of their country. They have a problem trying to solve the nonsensical “one baby” policy they had in that they could end up with 30, 40, 50 million men with no women. They have problems on their borders in the north and the south. Let me show you an illustration of the problem.
LAWLER: (Rumsfeld holds up a satellite photo of North and South Korea taken at night that shows lots of lights over South Korea but hardly any over North Korea.)
RUMSFELD: Here’s possibly the most important photograph I’ll ever see. That’s the Korean peninsula, with the same people north and south—same resources, same culture, same language, same neighbors. People are starving up in the north. That’s Pyongyang, just a pinprick of light. This satellite picture shows the energy in South Korea, now the 13th or so largest economy on the face of the Earth. The only differences are the political system and the economic system. China may hit a fork in the road and something may have to give. Who knows what it will be but repression works, obviously. It is possible to be successful in preventing people from having opportunities and causing them to starve and continue it for a long period of time, as they are in North Korea.
LAWLER: Some years back the post office came out with a stamp with the words “Global peace through global trade.” When you were running the Pentagon, did our global trade strategy influence our national security strategy? Were the two ever mentioned in the same sentence?
RUMSFELD: Oh, sure. There’s no question but that your relationships with countries where your trade is extensive are different from countries where it is not extensive. There’s familiarity, there’s more knowledge of languages where you have extensive trade. On the other hand, that might be a little simplistic. Think of our once extensive interaction with Cuba. We had all kinds of interaction—legal, mafia, economic, travel—going on pre-Castro during Batista. Then Fidel Castro came in and all of that interaction ended. So trade is good because people do different things better than others and at different times in their evolution. And we can benefit everybody in terms of jobs and opportunity if done well—not free but fair and balanced. But I don’t think trade necessarily leads to peace.
LAWLER: Sometimes it can foster peace and sometimes trade will agitate peace.
RUMSFELD: It can. If one asks, “Will the world be a better place?” Are countries likely to be better off if they interact with their neighbors in multiple ways, socially and economically? The answer is probably yes, but it’s not a certainty.
LAWLER: Is Putin a good guy or a bad guy?
RUMSFELD: Putin is what he is. He’s a KGB operative who grew up in that environment and is authoritarian by nature and by background. He is anything but a democrat. He does not get up in the morning and ask himself how I as a human being—or my country—can influence and contribute to a world where more people will have opportunity and better lives. He gets up and thinks about how he can reconstitute the old Soviet Union and how he can assert his aspirations of empire. Someone asked me the other day, “What will Putin do next?” My answer was, “Whatever he believes he can.” He’s going to do that which he thinks he can do without any major penalty. I have a high tolerance level for differences (among nations). Our country is different today than it was when it began and even than when I was born. The U.S. had slaves in this country into the 1800s. Women didn’t vote until the 1900s. And if you look forward 50 or 100 years, we’re going to be still different. So we have a template and what we have now is pretty darn good, but it isn’t the same as we had and it isn’t the same as it’s going to be in the future. And it sure as heck isn’t a template to be pressed down on other countries, nor should our expectations be that every country be exactly like us. Our definition of “good” too often seems to be to “do what we do.” That’s silly because what’s good in a different country at a different point in its evolution can be quite different from what we’re currently doing.
So the idea that our government should be judgmental and that if people aren’t behaving exactly as we are, we should put a stick in their eye, is nonsense.
LAWLER: What book are you reading right now?
RUMSFELD: I just finished a book called The Last Option about Israel written by David Kimche, who I worked with when I was President Reagan’s Middle East envoy. He was an ex-Mossad leader who became director of Israel’s Foreign Service. He did some of their work in Africa and Iran and around the world. I found him a talented, interesting and a fine person to work with on various projects.
LAWLER: What person in U.S. history do you admire the most?
RUMSFELD: I admire people for different reasons and I don’t know if there’s anyone I would select out. I have to start at the beginning with George Washington in that he set this country on a path, not as a monarchy and not a permanent presidency for one person, but as a democracy. He understood the advantages of dividing the powers among executive, legislative and judicial branches and accepting the difficulties and deadlocks that can occur when you don’t have an authoritarian system. The advantages of our system vastly outweigh all other options. n