WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel knew he had a certain reputation among the diplomatic corps in town.
Having trouble filling your boss' schedule? Just call the Republican senator from Nebraska. He'll meet with the ambassador from any country, big or small.
That open-door policy drove Hagel's aides crazy at times, but he says it is paying dividends for him now that he is secretary of defense. “No personality is going to change the policy of any one country,” Hagel said in an interview. “I recognize that. But it's not unlike politics or life. Those relationships are the lubricants. They actually make the gears work.”
Hagel spoke with The World-Herald in his cabin aboard the E4-B that carries him on overseas trips. He was just a couple of hours from landing back at Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, D.C. It was the end of a weeklong trip that took him around the globe, covering more than 20,000 miles and requiring nearly two full days in the air.
At each stop, his police-escorted motorcades zipped through the local streets — past the sandy beaches of Waikiki, then the modern office towers of Singapore and finally the Old World buildings of Brussels.
Along the way he met with top foreign leaders and dignitaries, many of whom he has known for years. It was a trip steeped in personal history. In Hawaii, he posed for a photo outside the same hotel at which he and his brother Tom stayed while on R&R from the Vietnam War in 1968.
He went on to the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual Asia-Pacific security conference that he helped start in 2002. And he ended at the NATO ministerial meetings, where he was well-known in part because of his work leading the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank.
He was accompanied on the trip by chief of staff Mark Lippert, head speechwriter Jacob Freedman and other top Pentagon officials who help craft the nation's defense policy.
Those aides filed back and forth from their workspace in the middle of the plane to the front, where the secretary was located, as they worked through a half-dozen drafts of his Shangri-La speech.
As usual, Hagel marked up those drafts with his trademark big blue pen.
It was an address that would be closely watched for indications of U.S. commitment to a new military emphasis on the region and desire to confront a rising China.
“The purpose of being there was to define more clearly what this so-called rebalance was and then to try to address some of the lingering and legitimate questions with our budget being cut. What does that mean? Are we going to be able to fulfill those commitments?” Hagel said. “The China piece — are we doing this to contain China, to stop China, to interfere with China?”
In one-on-one meetings, representatives from other countries pressed him with questions about those commitments and discussed sensitive issues related to the growing Chinese influence.
“He's got an incredible network of contacts and relationships at very high levels,” said Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and a Lincoln native. “It just makes it so much easier when you're having a meeting on tough issues when you've already got that relationship.”
Meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, the two discussed how they were soldiers on opposing sides of the Mekong Delta in 1968. That shared background gives them a base from which to build a relationship, Hagel said.
“If nothing else, there's a mutual respect,” Hagel said.
Another example of things getting personal came in Hagel's meeting with the Philippines' secretary of national defense, Voltaire Gazmin. In between discussing increased U.S. troop rotations through that country, Hagel told Gazmin how his father, a B-25 radio operator and tail gunner, served in the Philippines during World War II with the 13th Army Air Corps.
Hagel told him the story of how he traveled to Clark Air Base in the Philippines in the 1980s to visit U.S. service members stationed there. On a tour of the base museum he discovered an exhibit with a photo of his father in a foxhole during the war — the same photo that had hung in the house of Hagel's grandparents.
Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said those one-on-one meetings at Shangri-La have become important for all the countries in the region, and she noted that Hagel conducted more than a dozen of them.
Glaser attended the conference and gave Hagel high marks for his performance, saying he has gotten off to a good start in the region. And she agreed that personal relationships can help leaders work through issues.
“He does know these people,” she said, “and so perhaps that gives him a leg up.”
There were lighter moments on the trip as well. As Hagel's aides crafted his Shangri-La speech, they tried to make sure that all of the relevant countries were mentioned in the speech.
Still, during the Q&A that followed his speech, Hagel was asked why Russia had been omitted.
He joked it was the fault of his speechwriter — a line that prompted Freedman to bury his face in his hands, and caused Freedman's girlfriend to worry he might soon be out of a job.
Hearing that, Hagel penned a handwritten note assuring Freedman's girlfriend that all was well.
Freedman said that just shows the emphasis Hagel places on the human dimension — a consideration that extends to speeches and policy discussions.
The trip featured a couple of opportunities for Hagel to meet with U.S. service members.
While visiting those stationed at Hickam Field in Honolulu, he ran into Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Terri Purcell, who had worked in Nebraska with Hagel on Lewis and Clark Bicentennial observations years ago.
“Of all the people that I worked with, I really felt like he had such a great rapport with the people and with the military,” Purcell said.
At NATO, Hagel saw more familiar faces as the defense ministers worked through the future of the alliance, the post-2014 transition in Afghanistan and cyberthreats.
Reflecting on the trip, he said that no one speech or series of one-on-one meetings is going to convince anyone of anything.
“But I do think it matters when you've got one of the senior members of the United States administration come over and take time, spend time and talk about all these things,” he said.
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