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Colin Powell speaks on value of diplomacy

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a talk titled “Diplomacy: Persuasion, Trust and Values” at Carnegie Music Hall on Tuesday.  (credit: Courtesy of Charles Haynes) Former Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a talk titled “Diplomacy: Persuasion, Trust and Values” at Carnegie Music Hall on Tuesday. (credit: Courtesy of Charles Haynes)

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke at the Carnegie Music Hall last Tuesday at an event hosted by the American Middle East Institute.

The talk was titled “Diplomacy: Persuasion, Trust and Values,” and Powell devoted his time to addressing his four Es: the economy, energy, the environment, and education.

Powell was born to Jamaican immigrants in Harlem and went on to become a four-star general in the military. In 1987, Powell was selected to serve as President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, and then served as the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton before being appointed as secretary of state for President George W. Bush.

The event drew a considerable audience, nearly filling the venue. Simin Curtis, the president and CEO of the American Middle East Institute, opened the event.

Powell’s speech was the conclusion to a day-long business conference on energy and water hosted by the Institute. Numerous Middle Eastern dignitaries attended the event, including former Egyptian ministers, Libyan Deputy Minister of Oil and Gas Abdulbari Arousi, as well as what Curtis described as “the crème de la crème of American CEOs [of] water and renewable energy [companies].”

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett introduced Powell and remarked that “The tradition of the soldier-statesman dates back to George Washington,” referencing Powell’s military service, and after reading quotes from Powell’s writings and interviews, added, “Powell is an emblem of what America does well.”

Powell then took the stage, complimenting the American Middle East Institute, saying, “They understand the importance of understanding cultures of different people in different parts of the world.”

He spoke of the value of economic activity in Middle Eastern development, remarking, “When you think about what happens in the Middle East, it’s not just about wars and conflicts.” Powell recalled anecdotes
from his diplomatic experience, highlighting the desire for jobs and work in that area of the world.

Powell praised the value of “the creation of wealth, not that just goes to the top of the pile, but that brings us up from poverty,” recalling when he toured China shortly after the Cultural Revolution. “I could see that these people wanted a better life,” he said.

“What does it take to industrialize? Energy.” Powell added that in the near future, “energy will be so in demand that anything that can be produced will find a market.”

Powell spoke favorably of natural gas extraction from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale deposits, claiming that shale gas put the state “in a unique position to supply energy.” He added, “but we must do this in a way not to destroy the environment.”

Powell spoke of how Pennsylvania’s economy used to rely on petrochemicals and manufacturing, but has improved its environmental conditions. “It’s now education and medicine here in Pittsburgh more than manufacturing.”

Drawing on his modest background when speaking about education, Powell said, “It isn’t where you start in life, it’s where you end up.”

Powell admitted that he did not have the best high school grades, but “I went to school and college without it costing my parents a dime.”

He praised the decision of New York tax payers to choose to fund the education of low-income students, adding “I think every community in America should make that kind of commitment to education in America.”

He continued, “We need to educate our youngsters for a different kind of economy: a more sophisticated one, where education matters now more than it ever did before.”

Powell also went on to share some personal stories throughout his time on stage. “I have to be candid with you,” he began, “at this point in my life and career I’m just glad to be anywhere.”

He described that leaving his position as secretary of state was a difficult transition. “I’ve been out of government for a few years, but I still think about it,” and jokingly offered the advice, “If anyone else in this room has any kind of difficulty in their 70s, buy a Corvette.”

In addition to a new car and several major lifestyle changes, Powell said, “I’m probably as busy now as I ever was. It’s just a different kind of busy,” describing his speaking tours and work in venture capital.

His speech then turned to current events, with Powell emphatically warning, “I don’t want to get into an argument about Obamacare. I don’t know enough about it. I have socialized medicine from the military and I’m happy with it. But we need to make sure everyone has access,” continuing on to say it was unacceptable that a country as wealthy as the United States had people without some kind of access to health care.

Powell then addressed Congressional gridlock and political polarization. “What I say to my friends in Congress is you guys are in big trouble now,” he said.

He stressed the importance of compromise, referencing the extreme compromises in the Constitutional Convention, “They even had to compromise on the awful, horrible issue of slavery.”

“If they could sit there for just a few weeks and come out with our Constitution, tell me why Congress can’t sit there and compromise on a budget.”

He continued to be critical of government spending, and Congressmen “not realizing the books have to balance.”

Powell revealed that he now only watches foreign news sources, and criticized the polarization caused by networks such as FOX and MSNBC. He concluded his remarks on Congress by saying, “When I was young I saw leaders in Congress then. There aren’t any now.”

Powell told some illustrative stories about leadership and organizational management, and also addressed the current state of American security. “We are no longer in the kind of danger we were before 9/11, but we need to maintain our safety without showing the rest of the world that we’re scared,” adding, “We can’t let that happen or the terrorists win.”

Questions submitted prior to the event asked Powell of his opinions on the National Security Agency (NSA) spying scandal and Iraq, amongs other topics.

On the NSA, Powell said, “We have a great capability in the NSA and other security organizations. Sometimes we need to listen in on our allies. But this will come back our way,” adding, “You’d have to make quite a case to me, if I were still in government, on why we need to listen in on Angela Merkel’s cell phone.”

Addressing whether Iraq is better off than in 2003, Powell responded, “Yes, it no longer has Saddam Hussein terrorizing its people.”

Powell concluded his talk with some general remarks about America’s place in the world. “We’re still number one, but in a different kind of way. We have to be understanding.” With respect to conflicts such as those in Syria and Egypt, Powell advised, “America should not believe we have a magic solution for these problems.” He added that “we not interfere until other countries are ready to receive it.”

Powell referenced his parents’ immigration to America, and told stories about his encounters with immigrant workers in America. “As long as we remain an open country… we will continue to lead this world that wants to be free.”