Strong economy depends on our engagement abroad

The Colorado Statesman

The former commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Anthony Zinni, said on Monday in Denver that Colorado’s economy could be strengthened by American leadership abroad.

Speaking at an event hosted by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition at the Four Seasons Denver, Zinni recalled his own adventures developing diplomatic operations in diverse areas such as the Middle East, Africa and southeast Asia.

He began by offering a stunning tale of his time spent in East Germany just as the Berlin Wall was coming down. Before the wall had even tumbled, Zinni was inside the region taking a firsthand look at what life within the Eastern Bloc was like under communist rule.

It was 1989 and Zinni was receiving briefings in West Berlin on the rapidly changing situation within the region. “We arrived just as [Mikhail Gorbachev] threw in the towel,” Zinni explained of the then-general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander of the U.S. Central Command, spoke at a U.S. Global Leadership Coalition event on Monday at the Four Seasons Denver.
Photo courtesy of USGLC

The briefing was not like any ordinary briefing, described Zinni. He said commanders on the ground had little to say about the evolving story, as they were still trying to understand what was happening.

“‘We’ve been given the same brief probably for the last four years, and it’s over,’” Zinni aid recalling what his commander told him. “‘No one knows what it means. I can’t tell you what to expect.’”

He said the biggest challenge was determining what America’s role would be in the transition.

“Everything they had done, everything they had worked for, decades of understanding the strategy and the threat, were all out the window in almost a nanosecond,” recalled Zinni.

Without knowing what the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union would mean for diplomatic relations in the region, Zinni and his military colleagues decided to assume the role of tourists. They headed into East Berlin, through a well-known Berlin Wall crossing point, unaware of what they would encounter.

“Nobody knew the rules,” Zinni reminisced.

“The shock was that nobody was standing there,” he explained. “There were no guards — not Americans, not West Germans, not East Germans. Checkpoint Charlie was completely open.

“The forward point where we faced off against the communist threat, the absolute pinpoint of where we met the threat, simply was erased,” Zinni continued.

He was amazed to see what life within the Soviet-controlled region looked like. Old bullet holes from World War II could still be seen in buildings, while outdated cars lined the streets. The image served as a symbolic contrast to the modern way of life in democratic-organized West Germany at the time.

Zinni and his colleagues came across a Russian military base and they decided to drive into it. Some on the excursion questioned whether they could enter the military installment. “Nobody knows,” was the reply.

But they drove through the main gate anyway: “The four Russians… didn’t know whether to shoot us or salute us as we drove through,” laughed Zinni, adding that he and his colleagues were all in their military uniforms.

“The best way I could describe the Russian soldiers I saw is they looked like they were zombies. They were in a state of total confusion,” recalled Zinni.

On their way back from East Germany, as they once again crossed through Checkpoint Charlie, the group of commanders decided to take out a sledge hammer and begin breaking away bits of the Berlin Wall.

“I swear we were the first ones to do this,” Zinni described the surreal scene. “There were six- and one-star generals chipping away at the wall.

“As we drove away from there I thought, ‘My whole adult life has been involved in understanding a world of order that was in place that had the bad guys over there and the good guys were over here…’ Now everybody is telling me this has changed,” he explained.

Zinni immediately felt a need for America to influence the outcome of the fall of the Soviet Union. He passionately believed that the United States needed to play an important role.

“The idea that we sighed a sigh of relief that the doomsday clock is pushed back and now there’s only one side of the world that remains in power, and that’s the side of democracy and free market economy and the values that we hold dear, that maybe… we need to be engaged,” Zinni said of his thinking at the time. “Because left to its own devices, will this world reorder itself in a positive way?”

Zinni believes that moment in time was a crucial realization that America must play a lead role in shaping democracy across the globe. Since then, the United States’ efforts have been realized in Africa, southeast Europe and the Middle East, amongst others.

“We’ve become globalized,” he said. “We’re more interdependent than ever.”

Zinni pointed out that there is also a power shift taking place across the world. Other nations are becoming more prosperous and therefore more powerful, which is changing the conversation.

“Anything where there is prosperity and there is security and stability has got to benefit the world overall,” opined Zinni.

At the same time, he said other economies are deteriorating, which also has an impact on the world.

“We have fragile economies around the world that when they sink, for some reason it reverberates around the globe,” explained Zinni, pointing to the economic turmoil in Greece.

“To believe that economies can operate independently is a thought that died away with the Second World War,” he said. “The idea of isolationism and the belief that these impacts would not affect us is just not there.”

But Zinni says military action is only a small part of the solution. He said “soft power,” such as diplomacy, humanitarian efforts and economic development is the greater answer.

“We have to accept the fact that America is a leader in this world,” said Zinni. “It’s our destiny, it’s our good fortune, and in many ways, it’s our curse. But it is a reality and we need to accept that and be smart about it…”

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock agrees, having made globalization a major focus of his State of the City address this summer. His administration is set on positioning Denver to compete in the global marketplace.

Addressing the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition audience in introducing Zinni, Hancock said it’s no longer just about Denver.

“Today, more than ever, we realize that this is a global marketplace. We can’t play small anymore. It’s no longer about Denver… This is a global marketplace,” emphasized Hancock.

Also speaking at the event were former Colorado U.S. Sens. Hank Brown and Gary Hart. During a panel discussion, they were asked, “Why should the United States play this role?” The questioner went on to ask why other nations shouldn’t take the lead.

Hart explained that other nations are playing a role, pointing to Turkey as an example, which has taken in well more than 1 million Syrian refugees.

“It’s tragic that at this time of globalization, news media outlets are cutting back on their international coverage,” he surmised. “So an awful lot of things are going on that we don’t hear about.”

Earlier in a statement, Hart said, “In the age of globalization, not only our economy but our national security depends on full-scale involvement in global markets and security alliances. Ninety-five percent of the world’s consumers live outside of our borders. That represents a massive and ever-expanding opportunity for Colorado businesses, which are constantly seeking new markets to sell their goods and services.”

Brown pointed out that for many years, America had been the leader simply because economically, the United States was more prosperous than other nations. But he said that trend is shifting, and he expects other nations to take a more prominent leadership role.

“The transition that is taking place… is that we’re beginning to see other nations come forward as they begin to get the ability to do so and our ability is somewhat diminished,” explained Brown. “You will see that change.

“Growing Colorado’s economy and keeping our families safe depends on America being actively engaged around the world,” he added. “Our investment in the U.S. International Affairs Budget provides a strong return to the American taxpayer. It’s not just the smart thing to do, it’s also the right thing to do.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com