Skip to main content

Former national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley ’69, right, in conversation with former Rep. Steve Israel, left, director of Cornell’s Institute of Politics and Global Affairs, at the Olin Lecture June 7 in Bailey Hall.

US must get its house in order, Hadley says in Olin Lecture

Partisanship and extremism are fraying our political system and tarnishing the United States’ reputation around the world, former national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley ’69 told alumni at the Olin Lecture June 7 in Bailey Hall.

Hadley, who was assistant to President George W. Bush for national security affairs, spoke during Reunion in conversation with former Rep. Steve Israel, director of Cornell’s Institute of Politics and Global Affairs, on topics ranging from the Cold War and the Sept. 11 attacks to the gravest security threats facing the nation today.

China is an unprecedented adversary, Hadley said, because of its economic might and global ambitions. To meet the challenge, the U.S. should aim to cooperate with China when possible and to oppose it strategically when their goals diverge. But to do that, the U.S. first needs to “get our own house in order so we’re able to compete effectively,” Hadley said.

Partisan infighting, he said, has stalled progress in areas including education, Social Security, the economy and immigration.

“These are all things we know how to do and we’re not doing, because our political system isn’t working,” said Hadley, who also served as assistant secretary of defense for international security policy under President George H.W. Bush and as a member of the National Security Council under President Gerald Ford.

“We see that people aren’t so sure that democracy, freedom and human rights and the rule of law is the right model, not just for us but for the world as a whole,” Hadley said. “And if you then go and travel abroad, you’ll see that America’s brand is tarnished and China’s seems to be gleaming.

“We’ve got to get into this game, we’ve got to fix ourselves at home, and if we do what we need to do to make sure that our children and grandchildren live in a prosperous and secure future, we’ll have the platform we need to deal with whatever challenges we face.”

Stephen J. Hadley '69

Hadley referred to President Donald Trump as a “disrupter” whose unpredictability can be effective with adversaries but strains U.S. allies. Though Trump is markedly different from previous Republican presidents, Hadley said, today’s Republican Party follows his lead because those who resist him tend to lose public support.

“This president we have is very potent politically, and very shrewd politically, and he has brought the party in line,” he said. “I also think, though, that the underlying discontent that resulted in the Trump presidency … I think some of those trends are going to be with us to stay.”

Hadley traced his own passion for national security to his time as a government major at Cornell – specifically, a course on diplomacy taught by Walter LaFeber, the Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Department of History.

“For a lot of us, it really opened our eyes to America’s role in the world, how important that was, and inspired in a lot of us the desire to spend part of our professional career trying to help American play that role,” he said.

When an audience member asked Hadley to explain why the U.S. went to war with Iraq in 2003, Hadley called it a “war of last resort,” following 12 years of failed attempts to deal with Saddam Hussein.

“What we thought we were doing was removing a real national security threat. And the key to that, of course, was the weapons of mass destruction, and on that we were wrong. The intelligence community was wrong,” he said. “And I think it was not so much a failure of intelligence as a failure of imagination,” because it didn’t occur to anyone that Hussein had gotten rid of his weapons without telling the world.

In the final set of audience questions, Hadley was asked if he considered climate change a national security threat.

“I don’t know whether it’s a national security threat, because if you make everything a national security threat it devalues the coinage, but boy is it a priority,” he said. “My party’s been very slow on climate change, and I’ve been slow on climate change. I have to say, it was not the kind of priority it should have been.”

Still, Hadley said he remains optimistic, because the U.S. has the world’s largest economy, the most effective military and a tradition of innovation. But due to the myriad challenges young people face, he said, it’s time for the baby-boomer generation to step aside – adding that he finds it “obscene” that the leading candidates for president are white men in their 70s.

“We were the generation that was going to change the world for the better. I don’t think we made good on that,” Hadley said. “We need to step out of trying to run things, and [be] able to support and enable other people to step forward and take our place … because it’s their future, not our future. And if we will do that as the baby-boomer generation in all the towns and communities in which we’re active, that will be a huge contribution and it just might change the world for the better.”

A Reunion tradition, the Olin Lecture was established in 1987 through a gift from the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Foundation.

Media Contact

Rebecca Valli