He’s in his eighties now and no longer serving as an official advisor to the presidents, but James Baker still knows his way around the halls of power. He’s also still willing to share his experiences in those halls, a fact that worked to the benefit of the Junior Fellows last week, when they had a chance to meet him at a Houston World Affairs Council event and learn from his experiences and insights into the world.
His insights come from years in Washington, DC, where he served Presidents Ford, Reagan, Bush (the elder), Clinton, and Bush (the younger). Most notably, he served as Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff and George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of State, the latter capacity providing him with a starring role the shaping of the New World Order, assembling the coalition that defeated Saddam Hussein in the first Persian Gulf War, and ending the Cold War.
Baker’s speech reflected this broad background, with observations pertaining to every spot on the globe. When asked whether the United States should intervene in Syria, Baker was emphatic: “Consider me uncommitted. We don’t know which opposition group to back and intervention will simply antagonize Russia, whose support we need in Iran.” Baker was equally insistent that the US not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons, noting that such a development would prompt every Middle Eastern country to undertake a similar program, ending any hope of controlling nuclear proliferation. Regarding China, Baker urged cooperation, noting that there is “no better way to find an enemy than to go looking for one” and pointing out that the US will need China’s cooperation on a host of world problems.
Ever-present in Baker’s discussion was his well-known “realism,” the doctrine that US interests should be the guiding interest in the country’s foreign policy. “The US does not have,” observed Baker, “the resources or the support to be the world’s police. We must be guided by our values and principles, but we must first look to our interests in formulating policy.” It was a tutorial in international diplomacy for a group of students interested in politics. “It was a candid and non-partisan speech,” noted Jessica Rodriguez, an officer in the Junior Fellows who is interning for Houston Mayor Anise Parker. “It was great to see the world through the eyes of someone who knows it so well.”
Although best known for his work in the international arena, Baker also knows the political side of things. He managed the political campaigns of Ford, the elder Bush, and Reagan, including Reagan’s record-setting 1984 campaign, which garnered more electoral votes than any other president in history. Ever the realist, however, Baker acknowledged that the Republican Party’s fortunes had declined since the Reagan-Bush years. Under Ike, Reagan, and Bush, Baker observed, the GOP was the party of “effective and efficient government, not the party of ‘no government.’” To re-discover the path to victory and effective leadership, Baker continued, the party will need to eschew the “bitterness and resentment” that seem to characterize the views of party leaders today and, instead, present a “positive and optimistic” plan for the country.
For a group of students hoping to make a positive difference in the country, the words were a validation, which Baker followed with an exhortation aimed directly at the students: “You are the future of the country. Get involved. It’s your birthright.”
For these students, however, it’s also a choice, one they hope will lead them to some of the same halls of power that Baker roamed for so many years.