The shifting of power to Asia and how 9/11 changed America for the worse were two subjects emphasized by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage during his visit. Armitage, who was the chief assistant to General Colin Powell from 2001 through 2005 visited campus on Feb. 6 to share insights and experiences from his time in service. Armitage is also a combat veteran who served as a naval officer in the Vietnam War and was in Saigon the day it fell. During his hour-long talk, Armitage shared his views on many important issues.
“The men and women of the foreign service serve this country with every bit of distinction that those in uniform do,” Armitage said.
Armitage stressed the importance of the United States’ diplomatic relations abroad, explaining that while hard power is still respected, it should not be the method of choice. In discussing the conflict in Iraq, Armitage question the worth of the U.S.’s time in Iraq. “It’s too soon to tell,” Armitage said. He explained that while the operation has had its successes, only time will tell if Iraq will evolve into a productive member of the international community. Armitage notes, however, that what we do know is that Iraq, while continually plagued by sectarian violence, is now a much more stable country that is no longer a threat to its neighbors.
“In the wake of 9/11, America began exporting a very unfriendly face to the world,” Armitage said. “This was brought about by our anger, our fear … In my view we lost our way for a while. I think we are slowly returning to the smiling face of America.”
With the election of President Barack Obama, Armitage believes that America and its perception abroad has slowly returned to some normality. The normality that he describes, in pre-9/11 terms, is an America that exported the idea of hope and opportunity for all. The desire to return to a state of normality was a large reason for why there was so much energy surrounding Obama’s election.
Armitage explained Obama’s approach to foreign affairs as more “all about the business,” compared to former President George W. Bush’s “retail politician” appeal. He held that Bush was well-liked by most, even abroad, even if they did not agree with his policy decisions. However, Armitage explained that Obama turned out to be everything that Bush was not, and the international community was so giddy about his presidency that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “simply for not being George Bush.”
Armitage went on to stress the importance of Asia in today’s world, while also explaining that America does have its own interest in the region in the sense that America is a large player in the Pacific region. Armitage believes that Asia, which has experienced tremendous growth in the last few decades, should be a priority for American foreign policy.
Armitage then gave his thoughts on the delicate political game that the U.S. plays with the People’s Republic of China. One concern he brought up was the militarization of the region especially in regards to the situation in the South China Sea. The disputed territories and ongoing tension with the Republic of China (Taiwan) have upped the stakes in the region, and Armitage believes that any rash action by China could impede freedom of navigation as well as a general destabilization of the region. While the situation has been ongoing for many years now, Armitage highlighted America’s role in the region, and the deployment of U.S. naval carrier groups in and around the region. “Japan is the most important U.S. ally in the region, for one large reason,” Armitage said. “That is that Japan allows the U.S. to base military forces in Japan.”
Armitage highlighted this relationship as being key to America’s future role in the region. Japan, which boasts the world’s third largest economy, is also a close commercial trading partner with the U.S. and the second largest owner of U.S. foreign-held debt. Armitage explained that while diplomatic relations are the primary means of settling disputes, hard power is still respected, even in Asia, and the ability for the U.S. to have a hard power presence in the area is vital to the stability of U.S. interests in the region.
The Richard M. Nixon Republican Club was pivotal in bringing Armitage to campus to speak. President of the Republican Club senior Danielle Richards explained that she was pleased by how the event went and is hoping to bring another speaker to campus in the fall.
“This was a great collaborative effort between the Republican Club, the Political Science Department and the ASWC Senate,” Richards said. “It was a pleasure to have Richard Armitage visit our campus,” Richards said. “I personally liked how approachable he was. He was actually in the gym the morning of the talk working out with some football players. He was also kind enough to speak to Professor Bergeson’s President and Congress class. I thought this was a great opportunity for our students, staff and community members to hear from a distinguished individual.”
Political Science major junior Poonam Narewatt who was also in attendance appreciated the frankness of the speaker as well as the insights he provided. “I thought he was a great speaker,” Narewatt said.“Although he was a Republican, he was able to admit that Democrats had found success in areas where Republicans had failed. He also came across as very personable and humble, despite his holding such a high position in the Bush Administration. However I think the Whittier College community should be ashamed by the unnecessarily rude and confrontational conduct of a certain student during the question-answer portion of Mr. Armitage’s talk.”
The incident she refers to was a certain student’s questioning of America’s handling of China as a rising super power. Armitage openly entertained questions from the audience, and even allowed the talk to go over time in order to field as many questions as possible.
Armitage has left public service for the time being, however he is currently involved in several non-governmental organizations and is also President of Armitage International.