Anthony C. “Tony” Zinni is the chairman of the board of directors of BAE Systems, Inc., the company’s wholly owned U.S. subsidiary that employs approximately 55,000 employees in the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, Israel, Germany, Mexico, Switzerland, and South Africa. Zinni joined the Marine Corps in 1961 and was commissioned an infantry second lieutenant in 1965. His 39-year military career included command of a Joint Task Force and a unified command. His final tour of duty was as the commander in chief of U.S. Central Command. After retirement from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2000, Zinni served in numerous diplomatic positions, including U.S. peace envoy in the Middle East and the special envoy to the Henri Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (Indonesian, Philippines, and Sudan peace effort). Zinni is also a Distinguished Military Fellow for the Center for Defense Information, a part of the World Security Institute, and he has been an instructor in the Department of International Studies at the Virginia Military Institute. He is a graduate of Villanova University with a bachelor’s degree in economics. He holds master’s degrees in international relations from Salvae Regina College and in management and supervision from Central Michigan University, as well as honorary doctorates from Villanova University, The College of William & Mary, and the Maine Maritime Academy. His books include the bestsellers Battle Ready and The Battle for Peace, and his Leading the Charge was published in August 2009. Zinni sat down recently with John D. Gresham and Susan L. Kerr for an exclusive and wide-ranging interview.
In your book The Battle for Peace, you talk about the United States being an imperial power. You make a very valid case that we were imperial, we are imperial, and we will be imperial. Can you explain what you mean by that?
I don’t mean to say that we’re imperial in the way the Romans or British once were. I make it clear that we are an empire of influence, not an empire of conquest. The old empires were empires of conquest. Back then, you went out there, you took the land, and you took its resources. You bled it. We [the United States] have unintentionally and reluctantly become an empire because of our influence. We influence cultures and the social aspects of those cultures to a large degree. It’s influence when everybody’s watching Hollywood movies and listening to American rock and roll. It’s influence if they buy American products and American fashion. This is the imperialism that we have unintentionally and reluctantly spread. We have done much good in the world, but we need to understand the power of our presence and some of the unintended consequences of it.
In the opening chapter of The Battle for Peace, you give that example of driving with some foreign national in some foreign country and his pointing at the row of KFC, McDonald’s, and Burger King. What does he say to you?
Yeah, that’s the “cultural center.” [Laughs]
I mean, what have we done out there in the world in general?
I don’t think we did anything deliberately wrong. We didn’t say, “We are going to undermine your culture by infusing ours into yours.” There are those that think that we have, and I don’t mean the extremists that don’t like our cultural influences, feel it has hurt theirs, it’s taken away and corrupted their youth. From their set of values, they have a point. Now, it was not intentional. I don’t use the term “imperial.” I use the term “empire.” Remember, an empire of influence, and a reluctant one at that. We don’t have imperial designs in the old sense that “we want to own you.” The other interesting point that goes along with this is how you look at allies. Our definition of an ally is that it does 100 percent completely what we want them to do, is in our interests, and we don’t owe them anything for it. We need to treat our allies much better.
Someone who will do as they’re told and they’ll like it?
Allies may disagree with us at times. We have to be more understanding in those cases and remember the value overall. We have short memories at times.
Which, by the way, brings us to an additional question about allies. What do you think about NATO and other regional alliances, and do you think coalition building is a good thing still?
I think NATO’s performance in Afghanistan has been less than what it should have been. With the exception of a handful of nations, they didn’t stand up to the commitment as they should have in my view.
But of the “special-relationship” countries, they (the British) are certainly the most special over time are they not?
The Brits have been the strongest of all our allies over the last century. Sometimes I feel we aren’t appreciative of their support and commitments. All nations do things that are in their own interests but you have to reward your allies and be understanding of theirs.
You’ve described a “crescent of conflict” running from the Horn of Africa and the south shores of the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent in The Battle for Peace. What is the current state of that crescent? Is there hope anywhere there?
I actually think it’s expanded into a band, which I would say begins in our hemisphere in parts of South and Central America, goes across Africa, goes through the Middle East, goes into Southwest Asia into places like Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and then out into Southeast Asia, in places like the Philippines, Malaysia, and Burma.
So, you’re saying this “band of conflict” is based in the equatorial areas of the world?
And I think that, again, is a band of potential instability. You have people who are fighting one way or another for hegemonic dominance, whether it’s Hugo Chavez, the drug cartels in our hemisphere or in Africa, with the warlords, corrupt governments, or extremists in the Middle East or Iran seeking regional hegemony, and it goes on out into the Pacific Rim. That tends to be the band that creates most of the problems we face today. I like the idea that the people in the Pentagon are beginning to focus on what’s now called the “global commons,” because the way the threats manifest themselves are in these common domains. I like to say that there are five domains in which we interact with other societies: land, air, sea, space, and cyberspace. If you think about it, those are the five domains or mediums through which we engage with others.
In terms of land: our borders, protecting our borders, worrying about where natural resources are and access to those resources, environmental issues. At sea, we can see the pirates, access to the Straits, and the littorals that cause problems. We can see the threats to the free usage of the air and airspace. You and I go to the airport, and we know that there’s a threat when there’s the underwear bomber, Richard Reed the shoe bomber, and whatever explosive garment is next. Protecting the airways and access to the use of the air. Obviously, space: keeping it demilitarized, having access to it, using it in ways that benefit communications and intelligence gathering. And now cyberspace, which is probably the biggest new area of threat right now. These are the five mediums or domains or whatever you want to call them, that are the common areas of the globe [in which] we interact, and are where the threats manifest themselves and where you have to protect yourself or control or deny to your enemies.
If you were in the position to formulate a Tony Zinni Doctrine, what would it be?
I think it would have several components. One would be to be a leader in engaging the world in cooperative structures that reflect today’s world and help that world stabilize itself. The United Nations is a bloated bureaucracy in grave need of restructuring … because its bureaucracy is in some cases inefficient and even in some instances has been corrupt, as has been proven by the Oil-for-Food scandal. The Security Council doesn’t reflect the way the world power is today. I think that we [the United States] ought to be building partnerships – regional, international. They ought to be geared and focused on certain things. Some of these partnerships would not just be between nation-states but within nongovernmental organizations. We have some good models, like the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNICEF, or some of those kinds of programs. We see the disasters in these strings of earthquakes. What happens when an earthquake ravages an area and everybody pours in? They’re uncoordinated. The Fairfax County [Va.] Fire and Rescue Department and the Israelis show up, among others. And then the big complaint is, “Nobody’s in charge! Everybody’s doing their own thing.” So, why don’t we have regional and international cooperative networks that can control and coordinate these things, bring them together, and pull them together in some way?
We may have a Peace Corps, but why isn’t there an international Peace Corps? Why don’t we help countries in terms of developing their agriculture, their understanding of land management, managing manufacturing practices, things that help stabilize the world? Institution building is the key to preventing instability or recovering from instability because it’s social, political, economic, and security institutions that make a society stable. But we don’t know how to cooperate or to build regional capacity or to support that. So, part of my doctrine would [be to lead] in building these international and regional capabilities and helping stabilize the world.
Do you see the need for some sort of freestanding pre-prepared structures, much like the regional commands for nongovernmental organizations and other organizations to follow?
I think you could do that. For example, let’s take disaster relief and disaster preparedness. I went to a convention of the Inter-American Development Bank for our Southern Hemisphere and the number one issue that they all talked about, all the senior leadership of governments, from Central and South America, was disaster preparedness. They wanted help. They know where the earthquakes and the hurricanes are going to hit, and when they do they get worldwide relief. But what they need is worldwide support to be better prepared and to build a capability to better withstand the disasters that strike. If they don’t get that assistance, they will just suffer repeated disasters.
Isn’t that the definition of insanity, to keep doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result?
Yes it is. If we invested in prevention and improved infrastructure, it would be cheaper than repeated emergency reactions that never improve the situation.
How about revivifying some of the old treaty organizations like OAS or ANZUS?
I think the organizations need to be based around a different premise, not just military or security necessarily. If you’re going to benefit people from a political structure, it ought to be to help also to build government capacity to administrate and govern. Also to build education systems, better social institutions, and better economic institutions. There’s more to stability than just building security institutions.
Convenience and enlightened self-interest just aren’t enough anymore?
No one thinks about this, but the most unlikely trio of allies was the U.S., the U.K., and Russia [the Soviet Union] in World War II. The United States of America was partnering with an empire that wanted, at the end of this world war, to regain its empire. [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt and Marshall were constantly arguing with [Prime Minister Winston S.] Churchill, who wanted to make sure that the peripheral operations in Burma and in India and the Mediterranean were to reclaim British imperial possessions. Marshall fought this bitterly and said, “We’ll go to Germany. We’ll take out the Nazis. But we’re not going to rebuild your empire. We reject that concept.” Then in 1941, here’s Russia … an expansionist, dictatorial nation that wants to bring Eastern Europe under its hegemony. So these three, this democracy [the U.S.] – counter-colonialism and empire-building – this “regain my empire and former glory” [Great Britain], and this hegemonic dictator [Joseph Stalin of the USSR] form an alliance to get through World War II. It’s the most unbelievable alliance in history. Allies won’t always be U.S. clones, so we have to weigh the importance of the alliance and the priorities that arrangement helps us meet.
This interview, published in four parts for the Web, first appeared in its entirety in the 2010 The Year in Defense: Naval Edition.