Amid rapid global change that the United States is not always able to control, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen said the world cannot be safe without the rule of law. And the world needs lawyers, he added, to protect the rule of law by standing up to those who do wrong and protecting those trying to do right.
Cohen was the featured speaker at the 2012 Dean's Convocation at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law on Sept. 27. The Convocation also recognized the outstanding professional work of four Maryland Carey Law alumni: former U.S. Senator Joseph Tydings '53; philanthropist Lois K. Macht '56; civil rights lawyer Beth Pepper '83; and commercial litigator Michael Siri '01.
Cohen's work in both houses of Congress, the Department of Defense, and in the private sector has taken him to all corners of the world. But these days technology allows information and ideas to travel farther and faster than ever, creating the conditions that led to the "Arab Spring" last year. On the other hand, he added, that same technology is used by the bin Ladens of the world to promote ideas and actions that are harmful for our way of life.
"It's a world of great turbulence and transformation," Cohen said, and one that is challenging the role of the United States. In part because information can be created from anywhere and travel virtually everywhere, even into the hands of ordinary citizens, he added, "Our ability to influence events in the world has been somewhat reduced."
Cohen described the changing role of American power in the world to one of "reluctant sheriff" when he was President Bill Clinton's secretary of defense to "avenging nation" under President George W. Bush to part of an "international posse" under President Barack Obama. And our role will continue to evolve, he said, as the world continues to change.
In a question-and-answer session following his prepared remarks, Cohen said this country can remain influential by leading by example. While not everyone will choose the American path, he said, "Everybody wants ... the American dream" of political freedom and economic opportunity. He then pivoted to America's troubled economic status, accusing leaders in both political parties of engaging in "fiscal child abuse" by running up an ever larger national debt that will take generations to pay off and urging them to embrace economic discipline.
Addressing the bitter political climate, Cohen said the country's leaders don't talk to the country or each other with civility, and voters seem to want it that way. (Cohen represented Maine as a Republican, but served in the cabinet of Clinton, a Democrat.) Even when they sit down to lunch behind closed doors, he said, senators don't mix with members of the other party.
"This is absurd," he told the audience of about 200 people. "We've got to get back to being decent to each other and being fair minded."