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Trump is a ‘divider,’ says Robert Gates, former CIA director and defense secretary

The U.S. is facing multiple competing and simultaneous challenges at home and abroad. How has the country dealt with similar periods in the past? Former defense secretary and CIA director Robert Gates has a deep familiarity with the topic. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss that and his new book, “Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a new Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The United States faces multiple simultaneous and competing challenges here at home and abroad.

    One man with keen insight on how America has dealt with past challenges is Robert Gates. He served eight presidents of both political parties, and was the secretary of defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

    He was also director of the CIA under President George H.W. Bush. He is the author of a new book, "Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World."

    And he joins me now.

    Secretary Gates, it's so good to see you again.

    And let me start with what the country is very focused on right now, and, as you know, that's the treatment of African-Americans. For the first time, an African-American was named to head one of the military service branches.

    I think my question for you, as someone who served at the head of the Pentagon, is, why wasn't this done earlier and why it didn't happen under your watch.

  • Robert Gates:

    I don't know really know what it is about the promotion process that has led the number of people, African-American officers to not be as represented in the senior leadership as they are in the military service as a whole.

    It's clearly not a question of competence or capability. But what is it that kept colonels and brigadier generals and major generals who are African-American from moving into the most senior ranks more frequently than in the past?

    And it is a challenge, but it's one that it seems to me right now the military is taking on seriously, I think, maybe for the first time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Was it even discussed when you were at the Pentagon?

  • Robert Gates:

    No, it really wasn't, I guess in part because we had officers like General Austin who were in leading positions. There was a lot of attention to diversity.

    I would have to say that more — I would say more frequently discussed was — when I was secretary, was how to promote more women.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to ask you about the recent protests in front of the White House, the protests, how the president handled it.

    After that, we saw Secretary James Mattis, former secretary under President Trump, say that this is a president who has, unlike any president before him, tried to divide the country. Do you agree with him about that?

  • Robert Gates:

    It's quite clear that being a unifying president is pretty low on the priority of our current incumbent. I think he is a divider, and I think he does so quite consciously.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The thesis of your book, Secretary Gates, is that American presidents need to use the full range of American power, not just the military, but diplomacy, economic, intelligence, strategic communications, even cultural connections, development assistance.

    And you go on to say, not one of the past four U.S. presidents has done what it takes to be a global power. You worked for two of these presidents at the Pentagon. Do you accept responsibility, your own responsibility for that?

    Expand on what you meant.

  • Robert Gates:

    What I was writing about there was that many of the — most of the non-military instruments of power available to the United States and that played such an important part in the successful outcome of the Cold War were dismantled.

    And some of them were dismantled by the Congress. The United States Information Agency was disestablished by Congress in 1998 under President Clinton. The U.S. Agency for International Development, they wanted to abolish, but Clinton refused, but instead tucked it under the State Department.

    So, what I basically argued is that, all through the last 25 years or so, all of these non-military instruments of power have been allowed to weaken or wither or even disappear.

    And the result is that it has left the military with a disproportionate role in both decision-making and in executing American foreign policy, that, in effect, if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

    And that also means strengthening these non-military instruments of power, which are also instruments of leadership, to exercise our role in the world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I specifically want to ask about China, because you describe how complicated it is, how China is playing the long game, while the U.S. is not.

    Given the global nature of this competition, that it crosses not just military, but economic, it's cybersecurity, technology, do you worry that the tensions between the U.S. and China could just spin out of control in a dangerous way?

  • Robert Gates:

    Well, I think there is that worry, especially if the Chinese think that we're kind of on the mat.

    If we're so — if they — if President Xi concludes that we're so preoccupied with our domestic affairs, our economic crisis, our race crisis, our financial crisis, then they may — he may think that there are opportunities.

    I think we have seen this in their action with the new law in Hong Kong. We have seen this is in their aggressive actions toward Vietnam and Malaysia and the South China Sea, toward Taiwan. So I do worry about that.

    But the reality is, you know, if we're smart and we're lucky, this contest with China in the decades ahead will be against the backdrop of significant military power, but will take place in the realm of non-military instruments of political, the economic, the political, all of the different characters, all the different aspects of it that you described.

    My worry is that we're doing nothing to strengthen those non-military instruments that, frankly, over the past number of years, they have developed to a very considerable degree, and we have no strategy for how we're going to deal with China over the long term.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two other things I want to quickly ask you about, Secretary Gates. One is North Korea.

    You say it was a good idea of President Trump to make the overture, the outreach to Kim Jong-un. And you go on to say in the book that you think that the U.S. should perhaps lower our sights, bow to reality and live with a North Korea that has limited nuclear capability.

  • Robert Gates:

    Well, I argue in the book that I favored President Trump's overture to the North and being willing to meet with Kim Jong-un, because, frankly, every other effort to limit the North Korean nuclear capability over the last 25 years has failed.

    We need to come to the realization that the North Korean leadership is probably never going to give up their military — their nuclear capability. I think they see it as essential to their survival.

    At what point do we recognize that the North is not going to give up its nuclear weapons and decide that some minimal number is acceptable, as long as we are able to have complete access to North Korea, to be able to verify an agreement and numbers of weapons and so on, and kind of anywhere/anytime inspections, so that we know they cannot expand that capability, and we know where the weapons that they have are?

    We have to come to grips with the reality these guys aren't giving these things up, period.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last thing I want to ask you about is what's happening in November.

    You, in your last book, wrote of Joe Biden, former Vice President Biden, that he had been wrong on virtually every important foreign policy or national security issue of the last four decades.

    So, you clearly have strong views about his policy chops. You have also, though, said that you have questions about President Trump's character. I mean, you said earlier in this interview about — you spoke about dividing the American people.

    Which — if it comes down to policy positions vs. character, which one matters more?

  • Robert Gates:

    Well, I think that's what the American people are going to decide in November.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what about what Robert Gates thinks?

  • Robert Gates:

    What Robert Gates thinks, he will keep to himself.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, we will leave it at that.

    (LAUGHTER)

    Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

    The new book is "Exercise of Power."

    Thank you very much.

  • Robert Gates:

    Thank you, Judy.

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