KYOTO – On Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, 2002, five months after the attacks of 9/11, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell took live questions for 90 minutes as part of an MTV global forum to 375 million viewers. It was a different world, not yet dominated by Facebook time lines, tweets or Instagram models.
The Music Television network known for Madonna’s “Justify My Love” had asked the Bush administration to justify its foreign policy to young people who were questioning America’s role in the world. The war in Afghanistan was already underway, but the invasion of Iraq was a year away. The first question to Powell came from a young woman in London who asked how he felt about representing a country commonly perceived as “the Satan of contemporary politics.”
At first bemused by the characterization, Powell rejected the characterization and said that values drove America’s image in the world — democracy, economic freedom, individual rights. Quite the contrary to the Great Satan, the U.S. was the Great Protector.
The retired four-star general in the U.S. Army said: “We have sent men and women from the armed forces of the United States to other parts of the world throughout the past century to put down oppression. We defeated fascism. We defeated communism. We saved Europe in World War I and World War II. We were willing to do it, glad to do it. We went to Korea. We went to Vietnam. All in the interest of preserving the rights of people. And when all those conflicts were over, what did we do? Did we stay and conquer? Did we say, ‘OK, we defeated Germany. Now Germany belongs to us? We defeated Japan, so Japan belongs to us’? No. What did we do? We built them up. We gave them democratic systems which they have embraced totally to their soul. And did we ask for any land? No, the only land we ever asked for was enough land to bury our dead. And that is the kind of nation we are.”
Powell’s Justify My Policy appearance on MTV proved successful. Then-Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Charlotte Beers lauded his words in the immediate post-9/11 climate: “That’s it. That’s everything that needed to be said.” Powell’s soliloquy would drive U.S. policy persuasion guidelines: Pick the right messenger to magnify the message. Powell was one of the most respected members of the Bush/Cheney administration.
A year later, Powell addressed the United Nations and tarnished his golden legacy by forcefully arguing that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. He was criticized for lying the country into a war by putting loyalty to President George W. Bush over loyalty to nation.
It’s nearly 15 years since MTV piped in hundreds of millions of the world’s youth for a forum with Powell on America’s role in the world. A Donald Trump administration is just around the corner. President-elect Trump’s nominee for secretary of state is a close friend and business associate to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Exxon Mobil Chief Executive Rex Tillerson is the head of the largest oil company in the world. His $27 million salary in 2016 and $218 million worth of shares in the company make him a bit bigger than a man of the people. He’s more mogul than movement. In 2015, he told Exxon Mobil shareholders that the company would continue to avoid investment in renewable energy resources because “we choose not to lose money on purpose.”
Powell once told the world’s MTV generation that America was “a country of countries. We touch every country and every country in the world touches us. Far from being a Satan, I think we are a protector of a universal value system that more and more people are recognizing as the correct value system.”
Tillerson’s company voted against adding one environmental specialist to its board of directors because it would not be in the best interest of the company or its shareholders. He has zero government experience. He’s a strongman in executive management of nonrenewable energy resources. His company is infamous for decades of climate change denial and deflection. And now Mr. Tillerson goes to Washington to become the chief persuader for America’s foreign policy in the world.
Holy Exxon Valdez, Batman! Tillerson is the right messenger to magnify the Great Satan message, but the wrong messenger to magnify the Great Protector message.
Nancy Snow is Pax Mundi Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. Reach her at www.nancysnow.com .