Foreign Policy Lessons from the Private Sector: Five Minutes with Senator Chuck Hagel

The Journal sat down with Senator Chuck Hagel to ask him a few questions about how his experience in the public and private sector has influenced his foreign policy views and for his analysis of some pressing geopolitical issues. View the rest of the interview, which details his perspective on American foreign policy and defense issues, as it appeared in issue 13.1 “Language, Identity & Politics” here.

[GJIA] Senator Hagel, you co-founded Vanguard Cellular and were also president of the McCarthy Group. How did a career in the private sector prepare you for your time as a United States senator?

[Hagel] Well, I think that any experience in business is helpful because it rounds out your perspective and understanding of the world. Our world is now interconnected in every way. You cannot separate an examination of economic development from one regarding energy, resources, water, geopolitical relationships, type of government, or education. For me, business was helpful because it gave me not just a conceptual understanding of economies and relationships, but also the hands-on experience of meeting with world and business leaders. I can see, because of my own practical experience, how institutions like the G-20 fit into the dimensions of American sovereignty and government.

There is a very significant political tension in this country regarding China. The passage of the recent currency bill in the Senate and the public’s blaming China for taking our jobs are two examples of this friction. Despite this, we need to cooperate and find geopolitical relationships built on common interests. We can work off of those common interests to deal with the differences. So for me, my experience in the private sector helped me to put all of these pieces and components together. It’s also important politically too, because when you talk to your constituents about foreign policy, most Midwesterners don’t focus on so called “university” foreign policy. Foreign policy to them means more about open markets in which they can sell their products. So a relationship with China and India, or any other country for that matter, is important because it represents more opportunities for them to sell their grain, beef, soybeans, and so on. That is a real life intersection where economy, business, government, foreign relations, and national interests come together. And that national interest is certainly economic as much as anything else.

[GJIA] Senator, you are a director of the board of Chevron. Chevron works within a number of countries with authoritarian regimes, such as those in place in Angola, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Venezuela. In your capacity as a director of the board, how do you ensure that human rights and corporate social responsibility are a priority for your company?

[Hagel] Well, that is always an issue. It has to be an issue for any corporation. You have to factor in all of the pieces: the interests of your company, country, people, and host country’s people. You try to balance everything the best you can with the influence you have. How can you best influence the outcomes? Many corporations, whether it’s Chevron, an oil company, or General Motors, have been doing business in China for 20 or 30 years. China is a communist country; so is Vietnam. Are you not going to do business with them because of this? Or do you try to influence their direction positively? I think both China and Vietnam are countries moving in the right direction. They have communist market economies. That has not translated to all the people yet, but I think I can make a strong case that things are better in China and Vietnam today than they were 20 years ago. That is the way we can change things. We cannot change things in the manner George Bush indicated when he said, “we are going to put a democracy in Iraq and everyone will be happy, and it’s going to flower and there will be democracies everywhere.” The world is not built that way. If there are flagrant abuses of human rights, then you know about it and you have to deal with it. But it is always a tough call for any American company. But I think that American companies, of all national companies, are far more tuned into being responsive to these big issues. We are one of the few countries with a law prohibiting bribing foreign officials–the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. We are imperfect, but you have to weigh all these different factors. Many people want to talk in simple terms, “right” or “wrong.” They don’t understand; they are dangerous people. That is how you get the country in trouble.

[GJIA] Our blog has run a number of articles on the South China Sea, which is being heralded as the next big hot spot for international concern. As a final question: Given the increasing naval ambitions of China in the region, our relations with Taiwan, and the economic motivators underlying the tensions, how should the US proceed? How should it structure its future interactions with China over economic and geopolitical areas of contention?

[Hagel] We must continue to have a very strong navy. Seaways are critical. The South China Sea and the entire Indian Ocean through the Straits of Malacca are critical. America must maintain its pacific powerbase for the good of everyone. The countries of Southeast Asia are afraid of China. We must maintain commercial interests, maintain strong military relationships, and work with our allies. There is a strong future for us there. Obama has essentially carried on as Bush and Clinton did with the post-World War II focus on the Pacific that every administration has had. I think that that is the way we must continue to proceed. Obviously much of our economic future is tied to Asia, and we have huge interests there. We need to stay engaged in every way.

The Interview was conducted by Sikander Kiani, Michael Brannagan, and William Handel.

Chuck Hagel is a Distinguished Professor at Georgetown University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He served two terms in the United States Senate (1997-2009) representing the state of Nebraska. Senator Hagel was a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; and Intelligence Committees. He chaired the Foreign Relations International Economic Policy, Export and Trade Promotion Subcommittee; and the Banking Committee’s International Trade and Finance, and Securities Subcommittees. He serves on the Boards of Directors of Chevron Corporation and Zurich’s Holding Company of America; the Advisory Boards of Gallup, Deutsche Bank America and Corsair Capital. He also serves as Co-Chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, a member of the Secretary of Defense’s Policy Board, and Secretary of Energy’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

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