Leon Panetta

Leon Panetta at Compelling Perspectives: ‘The Strength of America is in its People’

Panetta discusses national security and calls youth to public service.

Photography by

Christa Neu

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta addressed threats to national security on Tuesday, Jan. 30, and called on youth to public service to help preserve democracy as Lehigh University hosted the second part of the Compelling Perspectives program.

Panetta served as 23rd U.S. secretary of defense and director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Barack Obama and director of the office of management and budget and chief of staff under President Bill Clinton after serving in Congress.

During the Compelling Perspectives program in Baker Hall at the Zoellner Arts Center, Panetta engaged in an hour-long conversation with President Joseph J. Helble ’82. The topic of national security was timely, as Panetta arrived at Lehigh from Washington, D.C., where he had testified earlier that morning before the U.S. House Select Committee on global security and China’s foreign policy.

Students and audience members were invited to submit questions for consideration before the event, some of which guided the discussion. The conversation touched on topics such as the importance of U.S. alliances in facing adversaries, the greatest threats to national security, and how national debt impacts security.

Panetta spoke about governing from leadership versus governing from crisis. He explained that when a government jumps from crisis to crisis, there is no time for true leadership. He issued a call to action to students in the theater, urging them to use their voices and become active leaders in the world and in Washington, citing the need for new, youthful leadership.

“We bless ourselves with the hope that everything is going to be fine in this country,” Panetta said. “That doesn’t mean a thing unless we’re willing to fight for it.”

A portion of the conversation focused on threats to national security and where the biggest vulnerabilities lie within the U.S. government. Panetta noted the U.S. is facing a set of autocrats and adversaries (specifically, Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and terrorist groups) who are working together to undermine the U.S. and other democracies. He said one advantage the U.S. has is its strong relationships with global allies, and noted that the U.S. should invest in strengthening those partnerships.

Panetta repeatedly underscored the importance of properly functioning government. He noted when adversaries perceive weakness, the U.S. is vulnerable. He stressed that the U.S. must operate from strength, fortify its military, be on the cutting edge of technology, and maintain a strong economy and diplomacy.

When asked about the current largest threat to national security, Panetta pointed to the importance of cybersecurity.

“The reality of what a cyber attack can do remains a real threat,” Panetta stated. “I’m not sure that a lot of American people are aware that a cyber attack could bring this country down.”

When an audience member asked what he was hopeful about, Panetta said he believes in American leadership. He noted that the country has “been through a lot” in its history, and always found a way to endure, and believes that it will again.

“Why? Because the real strength of this country isn’t in Washington…it’s in communities across this country,” Panetta said. “[It is in] Americans who are resilient, who have spirit to really care about this country, and who are willing to fight to make this country what it needs to be. The strength of America is in its people.”

Leon Panetta

Secretary Leon Panetta speaks with students during a question-and-answer session prior to the main program.

Prior to the Compelling Perspectives program, Panetta met with a group of 21 students for a question-and-answer session. Students in attendance were members of various campus groups, majors and courses, including College Democrats, College Republicans, Student Senate Executive Board, Douglass Dialogues, The Foundations of Sustainable Development course, and journalism and communications, political science and international relations academic departments.

The discussion, moderated by Provost Nathan Urban, was led by students’ questions regarding government, international relations and national security, to name a few.

With his wife, Panetta founded the Panetta Institute for Public Policy and meets frequently with students across the country to discuss government and political issues, as the institute’s focus is to build a new generation of leaders. During his time with Lehigh students, Panetta reiterated that the U.S. government needs new leadership and youthful voices to preserve the nation’s democracy and ensure government functions properly. He encouraged students several times to use their voices and take action, whether by casting a vote or seeking factual information on global issues, rather than consuming misinformation on social media.

He spoke to the current division in the U.S., and why Americans are polarized. He mentioned his time in Congress, when there was less division and both parties collaborated to accomplish goals and develop solutions.

“Our democracy is fragile,” Panetta stressed, “and Democrats and Republicans have to try to work together if we’re going to protect our national security and our democracy.”

As the son of Italian immigrants who came to the U.S. in search of the American Dream, Panetta said his parents ingrained in him at a young age that he had a responsibility to serve his country because of the opportunities the U.S. provided their family. He used that as a call to action to the students in the room, asking them to engage their peers and give back to their country.

Leon Panetta and President Joseph J. Helble in conversation during Compelling Perspectives

Leon Panetta and President Joseph J. Helble '82 in conversation during Compelling Perspectives.

Panetta’s career in public service and politics began in the 1960s and included positions in two U.S. presidential administrations. He also co-founded the Leon Panetta Institute for Public Policy, based out of his hometown of Monterey, Calif.

In 1976, Panetta was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he authored a wide range of legislation. In 1993, he left Congress to serve as director of the Office of Management and Budget for the incoming Clinton administration. In 1994, he accepted appointment as the President’s chief of staff, focusing on White House operations and policymaking.

As director of the CIA in the Obama administration, Panetta ran the operation that brought Osama bin Laden to justice, and, as the 23rd Secretary of Defense, led the effort to develop a new defense strategy, helping bring two wars to an end. After serving as Secretary, he returned to the Panetta Institute in 2013.

Hosted by President Helble and presented by Lehigh University, Compelling Perspectives debuted this academic year. The program aims to create a forum for fostering respectful discourse among differing perspectives on issues of critical and societal importance. The topic for the 2023-2024 academic year was national security.

The inaugural Compelling Perspectives event, on Oct. 24, 2023, featured the Rt. Hon. Theresa May, MP, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (2016-2019). Mrs. May provided a detailed look at national security in a global context.

A theme for the 2024-2025 academic year will be announced later in the spring semester, along with speakers and event dates.

Photography by

Christa Neu

Related Stories