Rumsfeld Ribs Zakaria: 'There Are People Who Think We're Living in the Post-American World'

CNN's Fareed Zakaria got more than he bargained for in his Sunday interview with guest Donald Rumsfeld.

As he pushed the former Secretary of Defense on America's need to cut military spending, the "GPS" host blushed when Rumsfeld smartly said, "There are people who think we're living in the post-American world, to coin a phrase. There are people who believe that we should step back and lead from behind" (video follows with transcript and commentary):

DONALD RUMSFELD, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Let me make a comment about 9/11 and today. Today with a debt crisis and a deficit crisis, we're about ready to make the same mistake we've made after World War II, after Vietnam and Korea, and then after the Cold War -- pare down our intelligence, cut the budgets in the Defense Department, and think we can get away with it.

We got away with it in earlier years. It's inefficient. You then have to crank it back up, which is what President Reagan had to do after the Carter years and what President George W. Bush had to do after the George Herbert Walker and Clinton years, after the end of the Cold War.

If we make that mistake again, it seems to me we're doing it in an environment that's notably different. The margin for error for political leadership in our country is different today because of the lethality of weapons. And if we do what it looks like the Congress is going to do, think they can balance the budget off the Pentagon, I think it will be a tragic mistake for the country.

FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST: We're still spending more than the rest of the world put together. We're still spending six to eight times more than --

RUMSFELD: Would you rather have Somalia spend more or Sudan or --

ZAKARIA: No. But my point is, there's room -- you ran the budget up so high that there's room to come down without sacrificing --

RUMSFELD: When I was in the Navy and when I went to Washington, Eisenhower was president, and then Kennedy, and then Johnson -- we were spending 10 percent of GDP on defense.

What are we spending today? Four percent. Three percent, 4 percent, 5 percent, in that range.

ZAKARIA: Largely because GDP has gone up so much. It's a testament to America's economic strength.

RUMSFELD: We are committing a -- less than half as a percentage --


RUMSFELD: -- of GDP today than we were then and we can afford it just fine. Now, there are people who think we're living in the post-American world, to coin a phrase. There are people who believe that we should step back and lead from behind. I personally think that the role of the United States has been a good one in the world, that it's been a healthy thing, that it's contributed to a more peaceful world, and it's not an accident that people all over the world want to come here, and they're standing in line to get a green card to come to the United States.

And the order that the United States contributes to, peace and stability in the world, by our strength is significant. I mean, Dwight Eisenhower had the phrase right -- it's peace through strength. It's be a deterrent, have those capabilities that dissuade people from thinking they can do things they ought not to do.

Weakness is provocative. We don't want to provoke people.

ZAKARIA: But Eisenhower believed very much in having a military industrial complex that was manageable. He worried a great deal about overspending. He worried even after Sputnik that it was going to be -- he is if anything a story about somebody who felt that you don't need, you know, to spend more than the rest of the world put together, which is what we're spending.

I just want to say on your bait that --

RUMSFELD: You like that phrase.

ZAKARIA: All the nice things you said about America are what attracted me to come to this country in the first place.

RUMSFELD: And we're glad you came.

For those not getting the joke, Zakaria wrote a book in 2008 called "The Post-American World." The New York Times reviewed:

In his new book, “The Post-American World,” Mr. Zakaria writes that America remains a politico-military superpower, but “in every other dimension — industrial, financial, educational, social, cultural — the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance.” With the rise of China, India and other emerging markets, with economic growth sweeping much of the planet, and the world becoming increasingly decentralized and interconnected, he contends, “we are moving into a post-American world, one defined and directed from many places and by many people.”

For that matter, Mr. Zakaria argues that we are now in the midst of the third great tectonic power shift to occur over the last 500 years: the first was the rise of the West, which produced “modernity as we know it: science and technology, commerce and capitalism, the agricultural and industrial revolutions”; the second was the rise of the United States in the 20th century; and the third is what he calls “the rise of the rest,” with China and India “becoming bigger players in their neighborhoods and beyond,” Russia becoming more aggressive, and Europe acting with “immense strength and purpose” on matters of trade and economics.

Yet this wasn't how Zakaria felt a few years earlier. Quite the contrary, what he wrote for Newsweek in March 2003 sounded almost Rumsfeldesque:

In principle, American power is not simply good for America; it is good for the world. Most of the problems the world faces today--from terrorism to AIDS to nuclear proliferation--will be solved not with less U.S. engagement but with more. The lesson of the 1990s--of Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Rwanda--is surely that American action, with all its flaws, is better than inaction. Other countries are simply not ready or able, at this point, to take on the challenges and burdens of leadership. Around the world, people understand this. In a global survey taken last year, the most intriguing--and unreported--finding was that large majorities of people in most countries thought that the world would be a more dangerous place if there were a rival to the American superpower. Sixty-four percent of the French, 70 percent of Mexicans, 63 percent of Jordanians felt this way. (Ironically, old Europe was more pro-American on this issue than new Europe. Only 27 percent of Bulgarians agreed.) [...]

America's special role in the world--its ability to buck history--is based not simply on its great strength, but on a global faith that this power is legitimate. If America squanders that, the loss will outweigh any gains in domestic security. And this next American century could prove to be lonely, brutish and short.

Almost right out of Rumsfeld's mouth, but eight and a half years ago.

Also of note, the 2003 version of Zakaria not only didn't have a problem with how much America was spending on defense, he saw our military muscle flexes as crucial to our post-9/11 success:

Most Americans have never felt more vulnerable. September 11 was not only the first attack on the American mainland in 150 years, but it was also sudden and unexpected. Three thousand civilians were brutally killed without any warning. In the months that followed, Americans worried about anthrax attacks, biological terror, dirty bombs and new suicide squads. Even now, the day-to-day rhythms of American life are frequently interrupted by terror alerts and warnings. The average American feels a threat to his physical security unknown since the early years of the republic.

Yet after 9-11, the rest of the world saw something quite different. They saw a country that was hit by terrorism, as some of them had been, but that was able to respond on a scale that was almost unimaginable...Washington announced that it would increase its defense budget by almost $50 billion, a sum greater than the total annual defense budget of Britain or Germany. A few months later it toppled a regime 6,000 miles away--almost entirely from the air--in Afghanistan, a country where the British and Soviet empires were bogged down at the peak of their power. It is now clear that the current era can really have only one name, the unipolar world--an age with only one global power. America's position today is unprecedented. A hundred years ago, Britain was a superpower, ruling a quarter of the globe's population. But it was still only the second or third richest country in the world and one among many strong military powers. The crucial measure of military might in the early 20th century was naval power, and Britain ruled the waves with a fleet as large as the next two navies put together. By contrast, the United States will spend as much next year on defense as the rest of the world put together (yes, all 191 countries). And it will do so devoting 4 percent of its GDP, a low level by postwar standards.


So, eight and a half years ago, Zakaria not only saw our military buildup as a positive for the nation and the world, he also thought we were financially doing it at "a low level by postwar standards."

But now, his post-American world view leads him to believe "there's room to come down" in our defense spending "without sacrificing."

If our strength made us successful in the years following 9/11, why would weakness be the answer now? 

As Rumseld told him, "There are people who believe that we should step back and lead from behind."

Count the 2011 version of Zakaria among them.

Nicely done, Mr. Secretary. Bravo.

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Noel Sheppard's picture