Chuck Hagel in Charlotte: America shouldn’t disengage from the world

Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking in Charlotte on Thursday, urged the U.S. not to turn away from alliances and international trade that have formed the underpinnings of the post-World War II order.

And Hagel said President-elect Donald Trump – who he criticized strongly during the campaign – needs a chance to form his cabinet and set his priorities.

“We have to give any president time to put his government together and then see where he wants to take the country,” Hagel told the Observer. “The wise thing to do is let that play out...Let’s see where he wants to go.”

During the presidential campaign, Trump criticized alliances such as NATO that have become bedrocks of foreign policy, saying U.S. allies must pay more for their defense, and hinting that he would reconsider such arrangements. He has also pledged an “America First” foreign policy, plans to pull out of the unpopular Trans-Pacific Partnership and renegotiate NAFTA.

Trump’s election, tapping into a populist and nationalist vein, mirrors other nationalist movements picking up steam in Europe, coming months after the U.K.’s surprise vote to leave the European Union.

Hagel served as secretary of defense in the Obama administration from 2013 to 2015. He also served as a Republican U.S. Senator from Nebraska and received two Purple Hearts as an infantryman during the Vietnam War. Hagel left the Department of Defense after a public break with the Obama administration on its policies around the war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and later sharply criticized the president and his staff.

Hagel had strong words for Trump during the campaign. In Nebraska in August, he said “I find Mr. Trump disgusting (and) often very, very disturbing,” and called Trump, “an instrument of anger, disconnect and distrust.”

Hagel visited to speak at a World Affairs Council of Charlotte event Thursday afternoon, where he addressed what he called the “bubbling cauldron of uncertainty” now facing the world. The former defense secretary said he agrees the next president should devote more resources to internal priorities such as infrastructure rebuilding. But he said the nation shouldn’t pull back from key alliances.

“NATO has clearly been in the interest of the United States,” said Hagel. He said the NATO member states should pay more, however: Only five meet their obligation of spending at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense.

“Can more members of NATO be doing more? Yes. That said, what we need to do is strengthen NATO,” said Hagel. “The alternative is not to throw out or disband those alliances, because those alliances are critical to holding the world together in some functioning order.”

And Hagel said it’s not just NATO that’s come under scrutiny.

“We don’t want to see the unraveling of those alliances...The rise of nationalism, of populism in Europe has really put in jeopardy the cohesiveness of the E.U.,” he said. “The United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF, trade, NATO – all of these alliances have contributed to a world order that, with all it’s problems, has produced a lot of good. No World War III. No nuclear exchange. Tremendous progress in every discipline...Medicine, space, science.”

Now that the election is over, Hagel cautioned the U.S. against turning inward and ceding it’s preeminence to other countries.

“We in fact do live in a global community underpinned by a global economy,” said Hagel. “If we start moving backward...then these (other) nations will find alternatives. New accommodations with China, new accommodations with other powers. They’ll have no choice.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo