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Leon Panetta: “The only predictable thing about the Trump administration is that it will be unpredictable”

Kazuyuki Sakamoto, The Sankei Shimbun



Sankei Shimbun’s Kazuyuki Sakamoto recently interviewed former secretary of defense Leon Panetta over email to learn his thoughts about the world’s most significant threats to international security, the prospects for the new Trump administration, and more. An abridged transcript of their discussion is below:


Q: What would you say are the most critical potential flashpoints in international security today?

A: We live at a dangerous time in the world because of a number of flash points that threaten stability:

  • War on Terrorism: Since the attacks of 9/11, the United States continues to fight the War on Terrorism. We have had success in going after the leadership of Al Qaeda, particularly with the raid that brought Osama bin Laden to justice, but terrorism in the form of ISIS, Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, continues to spread in the Middle East and North Africa.
  • Failed States in the Middle East: Libya, Syria, Yemen and other nations impacted by the Arab Spring have resulted in failed states that have become breeding grounds for terrorism. Intervention by Russia has further added to the chaos. The likelihood is that the instability will continue without a strong coalition of nations ready to take firm action in the region.
  • Iran: Although the Nuclear Arms Agreement has temporarily stopped Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, Iran continues to support terrorism and instability in the Middle East.
  • North Korea: An uncertain and unpredictable leadership in North Korea threatens to enlarge its nuclear arsenal, develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and disrupt peace in the Pacific. The alliance of Japan, South Korea, and the United States has been effective in challenging aggression from North Korea, but more will need to be done—China and other Pacific nations will need to step up and help stop this threat.
  • Russia:It appears that we have entered a new chapter in the Cold War with Russia—Putin has been more aggressive in the Crimea, Ukraine, Syria and more recently in efforts to influence the election in the United States, and threatens further instability. The United States, NATO, and the U.N. must be firm in dealing with Russia. Putin only understands strength, not weakness.
  • China: The same is true for China. Although there are important economic relationships with China that require the need for continuing dialogue, it is important for the Pacific nations to make clear that we will not tolerate violations of international law and freedom of the seas, particularly in the South China Sea.
  • Cyber Attacks: This is the battlefield of the future. Cyber attacks have been used to acquire intellectual property, disrupt services, interfere with elections, and destroy computers. The international community will have to work together to strengthen our defense against such attacks and establish global standards for the use of cyber capabilities.


Q: What are your concerns about security issues under the Trump administration?

A: The only predictable thing about the Trump administration is that it will be unpredictable. It was encouraging that many of his cabinet nominees opposed the security positions taken by the President during the campaign and supported the more traditional foreign policy positions of past Democratic and Republican administrations. Hopefully, they will influence what President Trump does on security issues.


Q: What would you recommend is the best approach that the new administration can take for peace and stability?

A: The best U.S. policy for peace and integrity is to provide U.S. leadership to strengthen coalitions of allies in Europe, the Pacific, and in the Middle East, to work together to improve our security capabilities, challenge our enemies and seek diplomatic, and if necessary, stronger action to secure the peace.


Q: What do you think about the future of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia under the new administration?

A: Hopefully, the new administration will support the decision of the Obama administration to rebalance to the Pacific. The United States is a Pacific nation and must provide strong leadership in the region to make sure that all Pacific nations work together to promote trade, economic progress, freedom of the seas, security, and the rule of law.


Q: What kind of role do you expect for the U.S.-Japan relationship under the Trump administration?

A: It is critical for the U.S.-Japan relationship to remain strong during the Trump administration. Japan has been a strong ally and friend in the Pacific region and the world. A strong U.S.-Japan alliance is essential to peace and prosperity in the Pacific.


Kazuyuki Sakamoto is assistant editor and staff writer for the Sankei Shimbun

Kazuyuki Sakamoto is a staff writer for the Sankei Shimbun Foreign News Department.

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