Published with the permission of Faces of Democracy initiative
Leon Edward Panetta served as the 23rd United States Secretary of Defense from 2011 to 2013. Before joining the Department of Defense, he served as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Today, the now 84-year-old diplomat - together with his wife - leads the “Panetta Institute for Public Policy”, a nonpartisan center for the study of public policy. Sven Lilienström, founder of the Faces of Democracy Initiative, spoke via Zoom with Secretary Panetta about democracy, the compatibility of democracy and secret service agencies such as the CIA and regarding the question of whether Germany with its decision to deliver Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine is becoming a belligerent party in that war.
Mr. Secretary, the “Faces of Democracy” have been promoting a better understanding of democracy for six years now. How important are democracy and democratic values for you personally?
Democratic values are extremely important to me because I am the son of Italian emigrants who came to this country. They came here to find greater opportunity but also to embrace the democracy that was here in this country, and I used to ask my father why he travelled all that distance to come to the United States. The answer was because my mother and he believed they could give their children a better life in this country, the American Dream. And I, as the son of Italian emigrants, have had the opportunity to live the American Dream.
For years, think tanks - including American ones - have been warning of a creeping erosion of democracy worldwide. Autocratic systems are fueling this process. Is our Western set of values in danger?
I think that it is very important to be aware that democracy is being threatened in the 21st century by autocracies. We’ve seen strong autocracies develop in China, in Russia and elsewhere; some have developed in Europe, some have developed in Latin America, and I think there is concern because we are now confronting crises in the 21st C. We have had to deal with the worldwide pandemic, we’re dealing with the threats of climate change, we’re dealing with security issues and financial issues, and sometimes there’s a tendency to feel that an autocracy can somehow deal with these problems more efficiently. But the danger is that, what happens in that situation is that freedoms and the respect for the individual that we enjoy in a democracy are done away with. So we lose the values that are important to democracy. And although democracies can be frustrating and tough to deal with, nevertheless, as Churchill said, for all their problems, democracies are still the best form of government on earth.
Both the storming of the Capitol and the devastation of government institutions in Brazil were targeted attacks on our democracy. Are you concerned that such attacks will become more frequent in the future? What can be done about it?
As someone who has served at a number of different levels of government in this country, served in the Congress, served as White House Chief of Staff, as director of the CIA, and as Secretary of Defense, I never thought in my 50 years of public life that I would ever see an attack on the United States Capitol, one that stopped our democracy from functioning. January 6th was for me a moment when I suddenly realized how fragile our democracy is and that a mob can be successful in stopping that democracy from functioning. So I think there is a danger: a danger from domestic terrorism, a danger from those who think that the only way they can get what they want is by destroying our democracy. That is dangerous. It is happening here, and we saw what happened in Brazil and what is happening elsewhere. It is very important for democracies not to take that lightly, but to make clear that those who would engage in that kind of behavior have to be held accountable, that they have to be taken to court and that they have to be punished. We cannot allow our democracy to be jeopardized by terrorists.
Question: Have you any feeling that this kind of attacks is going to be more frequent in the future, that they are going to recur?
Well, I fear that once that kind of attack happens, and people see that for a moment it was successful in stopping our democracy, that there will be those, who are terrorists, in this country and elsewhere, who assume that if they conduct a similar attack in the future, they might very well be successful in destroying our democracy. So, yes, I am very concerned that what happened on January 6th remains a continuing threat not only to our democracy but to other democracies in the world.
The German public is divided on the question of whether the supply of Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine has the potential to extend or escalate the Russia-Ukraine conflict? Do you share this fear?
I believe that the war in Ukraine will be one of the most important wars of the 21st Century because it is a war to make sure that a tyrant does not destroy democracy in that country. Therefore I think that it is very important to make sure that Russia does not succeed in its effort to destroy democracy in Ukraine. And I say that because I am very proud of the fact that the United States and our allies, including Germany, are working together to support Ukraine in this war and that, in fact, I think Ukraine is winning this war; I think Russia is losing. But more importantly, I think that Germans and Americans and others around the world need to understand that our ability to defend democracy in Ukraine and do it successfully is an important message that needs to be sent to China, that needs to be sent to North Korea, that needs to be sent to Iran, that needs to be sent to adversaries around the world. I think that this is a pivotal war that will determine what will happen to democracies in the 21st Century. So this is a very important war that must be won.
Question: In Germany at the moment there is very much a fear that Germany is going to be sucked into this way and that will become a party to this conflict on the side of Ukraine and that the war could escalate in this sense and very much expand outside the borders of Ukraine. Do you share this concern?
I think the most important thing that has happened in dealing with this threat of undermining a democracy in Europe, something that we are familiar with throughout our history, is that the United States and its allies, our NATO allies, are strongly unified in making sure we provide weapons and material to the Ukrainians, in implementing sanctions against Russia and in strengthening NATO countries throughout Europe. I think that if we maintain that kind of strong unity and alliance, we will prevail. What Putin is counting on is that somehow it will break our will, that it will break the will of the United States, that it will break the will of Germany and other members of NATO. What we have to show him is that nothing is going to weaken the unity that we have in support of democracy.
The CIA is now 75 years old. Originally founded to spy abroad, the CIA has been given more and more power and authority - including at home. How is such a secret service compatible with democracy?
I believe in a strong democracy, one that can both provide for the security of that country and that can protect the freedoms that are important for our democracy. How do we do that? Well, it’s what we’ve done in the United States. Whatever the CIA is able to accomplish is subject to oversight in a democracy, by the executive branch and by the legislative branch. There are committees in the Congress, the intelligence committees in Congress, that are responsible for looking at everything the CIA does to make sure that it is not only following the law, but that is also maintaining the freedoms that are important to our country. That kind of oversight is what protects us but at the same time makes sure that our freedoms are protected as well, and I am confident that we can do both.
In 1997 you founded - together with your wife - the “Panetta Institute for Public Policy”, a nonpartisan center for the study of public policy. What will the (political) decision-makers of tomorrow do differently?
Our institute was founded with the mission of trying to inspire young people to lives of public service. Democracies don’t work unless we get the people involved and participating in that democracy, particularly young people. I think this is a time, in the 21st Century, when we have to invest in a new generation of leaders who understand the importance of providing strong leadership in a democracy. I tell the students here that in a democracy we govern either by leadership or by crisis. If leadership is there and willing to make the tough decisions that are required by strong leaders, then we can avoid crises. But if leadership is not there, then we will govern by crisis, and that is a danger, because that can undermine trust in democratic government. Therefore, I think that it is very important to build confidence in a new generation of leaders that our democracy can not only survive, but that it can flourish with their participation.
Mr. Secretary, our seventh question is always a personal one: The year is still young. Is there anything you have privately planned for this year? What needs to happen to make 2023 a good year?
My wife and I are both the children of immigrants, and we have learned how important it is to give back to our country and to provide public service and to be committed to our democracy. That’s what I have done for most of my career in government and that is what we are doing at the Panetta Institute. But more importantly, as Secretary of Defense, I saw how our men and women in uniform are willing to put their lives on the line in order to protect our democracy. And that tells us how important it is to be not only involved in, but also to protect our democracy. I think the most important thing in this year 2023 is that we are successful in helping Ukraine stop Putin and Russia. If we can do that in 2023, I think that will send across the world a clear message that democracies can survive in the 21th Century.
Question: But do you think it is possible to stop Putin this year?
I believe that the Ukrainians are winning, that Russia is losing. But the only thing that Putin understands is force. That’s what tyrants are all about - they understand force. And that’s why it’s important for us to continue to supply Ukraine with the weapons they need in order to defend themselves. I think that with the tanks being delivered to Ukraine, with the other weapons that we can provide to them, I think that they can continue the momentum they have in going against Putin. Putin has to be put in a position where only two options exist: one: that he is willing to negotiate some kind of peace in Ukraine or two: if he is not willing to negotiate, that he will be defeated on the battlefield. Those are the options that we must impose in order to protect that democracy.
Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for the interview!
Thank you for the work you are doing with regards democracy.