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.”