On May 19, Gen. Clark and Gov. Ridge held a discussion at the College of William and Mary, discussing the need for American leadership, civility and unity in order to overcome the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and our polarized American society.
With the rise of Russian and Chinese illiberalism, the danger of a deadly pandemic, and a slowing of the American economy, many nations look to the United States for guidance and leadership. During the discussion, Gen. Clark remarked on the American political system, “it may not be a perfect system, but there is no better system that mankind has devised,” emphasizing the need for all politicians, regardless of ideological differences, to strengthen and utilize our political structure to protect democracy around the world.
Gov. Ridge also emphasized the need for bipartisan cooperation, saying “problem-solving normally requires the best thinking, multiple experiences and a general dialogue for all those that we pledge as officeholders to serve.” Gov. Ridge also highlighted the importance of civil discourse, emphasizing that his job as a governor was not to serve his party, but rather to determine the best solutions to the problems of all of his constituents. Bipartisanship drives better policy-making through a diversity of thought, experiences and backgrounds.
Moderator Liz Rosen kicked off the QA with questions about government responses to the pandemic. Gov. Ridge highlighted the need for bipartisan cooperation, noting “This is no time for politics. This is a war against Mother Nature.” He also discussed his role in creating the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, where Republicans and Democrats worked together to establish policy solutions to protect Americans from bioweapons and biological agents. Gen. Clark discussed his concern about the separation of state policy decisions from the policy decisions of the federal government in response to COVID-19, highlighting the need to strengthen the relationship between governors and the federal government.
In response to a question on the role of institutions operating past their duties, Gen. Clark compared the highly resourced nation-building efforts in Vietnam to the poorly resourced missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Clark emphasized the need to use American talents and institutions, not the military, to strengthen democratic values abroad, “We don’t really understand how to reform anybody else’s country. We can’t. That’s their job. Our best talent is education and that’s what we should be doing more of and more graciously.” Gov. Ridge discussed the importance of allies and globalization, emphasizing the need to support our allies and combat American isolationism.
A key takeaway from the discussion is the highlighted concern of President Trump’s pandering solely to his base. Both Gen. Clark and Gov. Ridge emphasized the necessity of promoting solutions that benefit all Americans, not solely the partisan base, and warned that these actions are not the norm and should not become the norm of an American president.
Finally, Gov. Ridge discussed the role of the university in shaping the next generation of American leaders. Gov. Ridge emphasized the importance of a diversity of thought and ideology, for students to maintain an open mind and grow their intelligence and knowledge base through reasoned debate and discussion.
As a student virtually attending the discussion, I wanted to offer some thoughts on the excellent civil discussion between a life-long Republican and a proud Democrat. Firstly, one point by Gen. Clark rang true for me: “You can’t have global leadership if you don’t want to lead.” America must reassume responsibility for the global order that we created. The American global order protects self-determination, human rights, globalization, and democracy. It emphasizes the need for cooperation and collective problem-solving. As Americans, it is our responsibility to protect these ideals and the order that we established from illiberal actors, the economic lies of isolationism, and the dangerous precedent of polarized democracy that we have experienced in recent years.
Secondly, hearing a civil discourse between two life-long public servants that deeply care about our country is heartening. Much of American politics today is a partisan blame game, filled with “what-aboutism” and an inability to admit fault. Gov. Ridge and Gen. Clark admitted past faults, what they learned from them and how, through collaboration, better policy emerged from the ruins of failed policy. Gov. Ridge discussed cleaning the Great Lakes and the responsibility of Republicans to environmental stewardship, rather than denying science or attacking environmentalists on the left. Gen. Clark discussed the failures of nation-building in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and how the military learned to support international development aid. These discussions of learning from failure to promote better policies at home and abroad show the damage to our system under the current toxicity of the political environment is temporary. As Americans, by admitting fault and learning from failure, we can greatly improve our society.
In conclusion, the event was wildly successful. As a student, I learned a lot and appreciated hearing from experienced policymakers. As an observer, I felt as though Gov. Ridge and Gen. Clark discussed incredibly important issues in a serious and civil manner and I hope to continue to see these events and discussions in the future.