VOA correspondent Greta van Susteren spoke with former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta about the global arms race and the military expansion into space.
Panetta said space represents a new frontier and the likely battlefield of the future. He also discussed China's developing lead in space and its impact on the world, as well as the risks arising from the decision by the United States and Russia to abandon the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
Panetta said it is of utmost importance that the United States reopen dialogue with Russia and China so all sides can address the current lack of trust among the key arms players of the world.
WATCH: VOA correspondent Greta van Susteren and former Defense Secretary
Greta van Susteren: Mr. Secretary, nice to see you, sir.
Leon Panetta: Nice to be with you, Greta.
GVS: Mr. Secretary, what's the difference, in concept, between Space Command and a space force?
Panetta: Well, I'm assuming that what they're hoping is that they can provide greater emphasis to our effort in space. I'm not convinced that that's the answer. I mean, I sometimes worry that an additional bureaucracy, anyplace, only inhibits progress rather than advancing it. But … now in the Air Force, there are a number of officers who are committed to working in space, and I'm sure that that effort will continue and the United States will protect our position in space.
GVS: What kind of mischief, for lack of a better word, can be imposed upon a nation by what goes on in space? I mean, how much self-defense do we have to worry about in space?
Panetta: I think space is that frontier that a lot of nations are beginning to explore now, and India has just launched a vehicle into space. There are other countries that are developing initiatives to go into space. China, obviously, has a huge initiative with regards to space, as we do. And so I think space is indeed a battlefield of the future if we don't sit down as nations and develop rules for how we're going to behave. ... Right now, it's kind of wide open.
GVS: Well, that's what we're doing. My next question: It seems like everyone, well, not everyone, but many nations are sort of freelancing in terms of what they're doing in space and almost putting … like an arms race, or a technology race, in space. I can deal with a technology space race but not an arms race in space.
Panetta: Well, I think that's a real concern, particularly with artificial intelligence. What China is doing with artificial intelligence and deploying their capabilities in space — they are really developing space weapons that are capable of interfering with other satellites that are in space. The United States frankly has not done as well in developing the kind of defenses that we absolutely have to have, if we're going to have satellites in space that are not impacted by weapons from China.
GVS: How did we let China get ahead of us?
Panetta: Well, it's a good question. I think they put a lot more emphasis on research and efforts to develop artificial intelligence and new technologies in space. They've really focused on that effort. The United States, while we've had the private sector developing capabilities in space, very frankly, we have not invested, as we should, with regards to space, and particularly with regards to national security in space as well.
GVS: Turning now to the INF. President Trump has pulled out, as of early August, from the INF Treaty, but before that point, had Russia violated that agreement?
Panetta: Well, I don't think there's any question that Russia had developed a missile which violated the terms of the INF agreement, and we had raised objections to that. I'm not sure it's a good reason to withdraw from the INF, because the end result of that will be a nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia. I wish that diplomacy had been given a little more of a chance to try to resolve those issues.
GVS: Well, if the INF is violated by Russia, it becomes almost a unilateral agreement with just the U.S. complying. Plus, in terms of an arms race, we just mentioned China and outer space — China is not a signatory to the treaty in the first place, so China was off doing its own thing.
Panetta: Well, and that frankly is a concern about not only our national security but peace in the world. I mean, the reality is that we have some very, very dangerous flashpoints in the world that we live in. And one without question is dealing with China, particularly with this trade war, but dealing with them and other capabilities in space. And the other is Russia, which we're now involved in what I call a new chapter of the Cold War. … And, you know, the prospect of having the United States and Russia engage in a nuclear arms race where they're both trying to increase and improve their nuclear weapons, I think it's a dangerous prospect for the world. And so, the most important thing right now, it strikes me, is that diplomacy has to play a role here. We've got to make a serious effort to try to reopen dialogue, not only with China but with Russia as well.
GVS: Is there any doubt that we're in an arms race right now with Russia, and is there any doubt that we're in an arms race with China?
Panetta: I don't think there's any question that that's happening. Russia is continuing to invest in developing new missiles and new arms, and the United States is obviously investing as well, with regards to those kinds of capabilities. So I don't know what else you would call that but, you know, an arms race in terms of trying to figure out who can achieve superiority. We've been through this in the past. Obviously, both countries are trying to checkmate each other as to who is the strongest. But as that continues, I think we have the same kind of danger we have in Iran, which is that somebody then can make a terrible mistake. And as a result of that mistake we could be involved in a nuclear war.
GVS: What got to the point that China stopped destroying its missiles and stopped complying with the INF ... ? I mean, what was the flashpoint? What provoked them to do it?
Panetta: I think as always — look, this is an area where we've been competing with the Russians and with the Chinese for a very long time. And, you know, beneath the surface, even though there are agreements, there are those that feel that those agreements are inhibiting their ability to develop the weapons they need. And I think, with regards to Russia, they were working on this missile, and they wanted to develop that capability to be able to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile that could fly a lot faster at going after its target. And in doing that and in testing it, that's what created the violation of the INF Treaty. But again, the problem is, you know, both sides now have decided to withdraw from that treaty, which means that the treaty doesn't restrain anybody. And the consequence of that is that both sides are going to be spending a lot more money and investing in what is essentially a new arms race.
GVS: All right, obviously … that's a terrible thing; it's horribly expensive and horribly dangerous. Not what anyone should want, but how do you reverse this? How do you get people to the table? How do you get to the point where, you know, the United States can trust Russia? Russia violated earlier the INF; how do you get China, which wasn't part of the agreement in the first place, to come to the table and discuss this?
Panetta: You're asking the toughest question of all, which is: How do we get back to opening up a dialogue that will allow us to try to prevent this kind of uninhibited arms race that we're in right now? There's a lack of trust. There's no question about it. Lack of trust with Russia, a lack of trust with China.
You know, China — a great example of that is the trade war that we're in, and the fact that we cannot arrive at some kind of agreement here, that we should try to eliminate these tariffs and create a better trade relationship with China, and for that matter the rest of the world. Look. It's tough. … I've been there. I know what it means to sit down and try to negotiate with people you don't agree with. But what it takes is persistence, it takes determination, and it takes the fundamental will to try to continue to work at trying to arrive at an agreement and develop that kind of trust that you need in order to do that. I think Russia understands where this is all headed. I think China understands where this is all headed. I don't think anybody wants the end result, which would be a nuclear war that would destroy the world. So, if that's the case, then I think what the president and what our key diplomats have to do is to be willing to find an approach of sitting down, trusting each other, but being persistent. You're not going to get a quick deal here. What each country is going to do is test each other. The most important thing is that when the United States sits down, that it … represents the strongest military power on the face of the Earth, and that they know that. If they know that, then they have everything to gain by trying to negotiate with the United States. We need to be strong, but at the same time, we also need to be flexible to listen to their concerns, to listen to what bothers them and to try to deal with their concerns as well. That's the way you negotiate. That's the way you get deals done.
GVS: Meanwhile, though, Russia is selling surface-to-air missiles to our NATO ally Turkey. And that, of course is causing, you know, much consternation in the United States. Was that to sort of divide NATO, or what's the purpose of Russia doing that with Turkey?
Panetta: Look, we have to understand with Russia, you know, there's one fundamental goal, which is to destabilize the United States and to destabilize our relationship with our allies. They've been doing that for a long time; this is nothing new.
And I think the problem is when they sense that there's a vacuum there, they will take advantage of it. That's what they did when they went into the Crimea. That's what they did when they went into the Ukraine. It's what they did when they went into Syria. They sensed a vacuum there in terms of the United States, and they took advantage of it. And they're doing the same thing with regards to Turkey; they sense that the relationship between Turkey and the United States is not well. ... And so, they're taking advantage of it by providing them with weapons and missiles, and by trying to gradually have Turkey pull back from NATO. I think that's the ultimate goal. … (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan is not dumb. He understands what Russia is trying to do. He's going to take advantage of it. But, Erdogan is going to march to his own drummer. And I think in the end if the United States is smart, we'll keep our channels of communication open to Erdogan, because I think at some point he's going to need to have the United States when it comes to dealing not only with Syria, but with dealing with other problems in the Middle East.
GVS: All right, the United States pulled out of the 2015 deal with Iran, the nuclear deal. And President Trump has said that he would be willing to talk to Iran again, but Iran says, no, until you lift the sanctions, we're not going to talk at all. So there's a stalemate … where does this lead us ... ?
Panetta: Well, that's another one of these flashpoints in the world that I think is producing the potential for what could be another war in the Middle East. Right now it's very tense. The United States did pull back from the arms control agreement. I think that was a mistake. At the same time, Iran is continuing to probe. They're attacking ships. They're using drones to come after us. … They're making efforts to undermine stability in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. So, this probing back and forth creates a very tense situation. … President Trump and the leader of Iran … they're both dug in, and neither is going to move in terms of trying to establish some negotiating path. I think the key here is the effort by (French) President (Emmanuel) Macron, who has made the effort to try to open up some opportunity for negotiation. He does have the ability as a result of remaining in the agreement, the nuclear agreement with Iran, along with these other countries that were part of it — Great Britain, Germany, Russia, China. I think the key is to have those countries try to pursue an opening for negotiations with Iran that includes these areas that the president expressed concerns about, but gets us back to the negotiating table. Neither side wants a war here, neither side is going to benefit from a war. The only answer is to have some dialogue that is provided through this negotiating with our allies.
GVS: All right, let me give you one more flashpoint. North Korea has been firing off missiles the last several months. President Trump seems at least publicly, to be sort of unnerved by it, that it's happening. Meanwhile, you've got Japan and South Korea, they've got a very frosty relationship. We always hoped China would help us with North Korea, and now we're in a trade war with them. So, what about North Korea?
Panetta: Well, you've raised again another, you know, one of those dangerous flashpoints in a very dangerous world. I don't think that the president's effort at summitry with Kim Jong Un has worked at all. I think he, you know, he tried to make an effort at it. I give him some credit for trying to make that effort. But the end result has been that that they are taking advantage of that relationship, and we're paying a price for that. North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons. They continue to develop their missile capability. They're developing a new submarine that will have the capability of firing a missile. They're going ahead and rearming themselves as, you know, in the face of this relationship, and the president, frankly, has been excusing that kind of behavior. I don't think that's been a smart move on his part. And so, North Korea is going to continue to take advantage of that relationship. And the problem is it's now beginning to impact on the most important relationship we had in that region, which is with South Korea, and with Japan. Now we're seeing the relationship between South Korea and Japan break down as well. And so that alliance that's been critical in dealing with North Korea is now suffering the consequences of that. This is not a good situation. And again, the only opportunity here is, if, if the United States and South Korea and Japan are willing to reopen discussions with North Korea. Summitry between the president and Kim Jong Un has not worked, and very frankly will not work.
GVS: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for talking to me. … Maybe next time the world will be a lot calmer … because the world certainly looks rather dangerous these days.
Panetta: It does, but you know I always have great confidence that ultimately we will find the leadership in the world to find a way to resolve the crises that we're facing. But it's going to take that in order to hopefully preserve peace in the future.
GVS: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much. I hope to talk to you again soon.
Panetta: Thank you.