FILE - Former US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
FILE - Former US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

WASHINGTON - A former top U.S. defense official says the leading presidential candidates, as well as voters, need to start taking a long, hard look at the country’s foreign policy.

“Up until now it’s just been goofball stuff and gong show appearances — now it get serious,” former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a roundtable discussion Tuesday at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Of the remaining presidential candidates, likely Republican nominee Donald Trump has garnered the most attention for his foreign policy views, criticizing NATO as “obsolete.”

Hagel, who refused to endorse any of the candidates, has been critical of Trump’s disregard for many of Washington’s long-running alliances. He said the question of how best to move forward, however, needs to be asked.

“There has not been a coherent, really not just debate, but conversation about what is America’s role in the world,” he added. “The general election candidates will have to articulate with some specificity where they are on these big issues.”

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin explains t
FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin during media forum.

Sit down with Putin

Hagel also offered some advice for whoever next occupies the White House.

“One of the first orders of business for the next president, in my opinion, has got to be to sit down with [Russia’s] Vladimir Putin,” he said. “That may be distasteful, but we know enough about President Putin that he deals leader to leader.”

The former defense secretary cautioned it was unlikely Russia could sustain its activities in both Ukraine and Syria, which have caused alarm to U.S. allies around the world. He also underscored that not engaging the Russians still carries tremendous risk.

“In the meantime, there’s a lot of damage being done,” he said. “You will continue a proxy war that we’re essentially seeing in the Middle East, in Syria today and I’m not sure where that takes any of us.”