Former Secretary of Defense and Georgetown professor Chuck Hagel returned to Georgetown this semester to assume the position of distinguished executive-in-residence. In his role, Hagel will engage with students in guest lectures and provide support and expertise to administrators and faculty in all four schools. Prior to his appointment as secretary of defense, Hagel was a professor in the School of Foreign Service from 2009 to 2013, specializing in geopolitical issues.
The Hoya sat down with Hagel earlier this week to discuss his new role, his experiences in the United States Department of Defense and the future of American politics leading up to the 2016 elections.
What about Georgetown brought you back?
When President of Georgetown Jack DeGioia called me and asked me to consider coming back to Georgetown, I was very pleased because I found my experience here for three years before I went to be secretary of defense to be as enhancing and rewarding as any experience I’ve had in my life. I respect the institution and the students. The opportunity to connect and make some contributions and … to be part of that in different ways was very attractive to me.
Are there any improvements you would suggest to the deans of the schools at Georgetown?
One of the reasons I’ve always thought Georgetown is an exceptional institution of higher learning is that they make the education here relevant to real life, and they’ve taken advantage of the fact that they are here at the center of the nation’s business, the nation’s capital, and they have access to current leaders and former leaders, both internationally and domestically. They’ve used that very effectively. I think to continue to build on that, to give students — no matter what school they’re in — a good foundation on what the issues are, thinking rather than just a rote participation in education, [are] what I like very much about this school.
How do you think your past experiences as secretary of defense and senator of Nebraska will inform your presence on campus?
Because of the last 20 years, I’ve participated in a lot of defining events that have occurred in the world. I think students are interested in my thinking and my observations, now that I’ve been away from that for a while. … I think they are always interested in hearing about that, and in particular, giving them an opportunity to ask questions. “Why did you think that?” or “Why did you do that?” or “Was doing that a mistake?” … It’s just that I’ve had the great privilege of being on this stage for the past 20 years, and having seen what’s happened, I think any institution of higher learning always puts some value on that.
What are you most proud of accomplishing during your tenure as secretary of defense? Is there anything you wish you had done differently? What have you taken away from the experience?
I don’t know of a situation I’ve been in throughout my life, in the private sector the last 50 years, that if I didn’t have the opportunity to go back and do it again, I wouldn’t find ways to do it better.
I think the things for me during the two years I spent as secretary of defense was putting a focus on the human dimensions of the men and women and families in the Defense Department that really hadn’t been given a lot of attention over the last 15 years. This country has been at war for unprecedented years: 14 years of war. We’ve never been at war that long in the history of our country … and that takes a huge toll on families and suicide rates.
So putting the focus on review of our health care system, review of every human dimension of those internal relationships, which are in fact the glue in the foundation of any institution. You’ve got to take care of your people, and the quality of your people is always the essence of an institution. It’s not the institution, it’s the people and the recruitment and retention of the best people, making sure their families are taken care of. I put a lot of time into that.
The last thing I would say is working with the military. The civilian leadership has to work very closely with our uniformed military. It doesn’t mean you agree with everything all the time, but you have to create an environment that’s conducive to listening. Turn your transmitters off and turn on your receivers. I think if America did that more often, we’d do better more often in the world. It’s just basic with dealing with people and getting their point of view. You’re always going to learn something that helps you make decisions.
What do you think it means to be a moderate Republican, especially in terms of the 2016 race?
I’ve always believed that the purpose of politics is to engage the people, give the people an opportunity to participate and as they do, they form some decisions and conclusions and elect leaders to govern. The ultimate objective is not to continue to win elections. The ultimate objective of politics is to govern a nation effectively … and unfortunately, we have found ourselves the last few years so politically unable because we’ve brought such raw partisan politics to governance that we’ve essentially paralyzed our government.
You can’t govern a nation of free people without listening to each other and coming to some conclusion. … This absolutism, that “I’m all right and you’re all wrong all the time” will paralyze a nation at a time when the world is dangerous, complicated and combustible.
People are losing confidence in American leadership around the world. … When you produce a society that doesn’t trust its leaders and its institutions, you’ve produced an environment in society that’s very dangerous. So, you have people like [Donald] Trump, [Ben] Carson and [Carly] Fiorina out there advocating that one of the primary reasons they should be elected president is that they have no experience. I’m not sure that’s a particular virtue, but in an environment where politicians and government are so lowly regarded that you all have screwed everything up, and the politicians have brought a lot of it on themselves sure, but we’ll get back to a new center of gravity. … Responsibility is the key function and objective of governance.
What security and defense issues are most pressing right now?
I think cyber is the most deadly threat of all. I say that because cyberattacks represent a very odious, silent attack. You don’t know when it’s coming, you’re not always sure where it comes from, who perpetrated it. … This is a real deadly threat to our security because it’s an economic threat, it’s a social threat and a security threat.
Nuclear exchange is still real and it’s going to be real. Weapons of mass destruction like chemical weapons and biological weapons are still threats. … The challenges are more complicated, more diverse, more varied, but we’ve always had challenges, and we have to be smart and wise with how we use our great capabilities to deal with it. We have tremendous capabilities if we’re smart enough to use them in a smart way with our friends and our allies. We can’t do it alone. No nation can do it alone, and we have to do it with others.