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Gen. Martin Dempsey says Americans must gain new perspective in talk at UNC

General Martin Dempsey, former Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, discusses U.S. national security at a forum with Professor Richard Kohn and Professor Klaus Larres on Tuesday evening in Wilson Library.
General Martin Dempsey, former Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, discusses U.S. national security at a forum with Professor Richard Kohn and Professor Klaus Larres on Tuesday evening in Wilson Library.

In his opening remarks, professor Klaus Larres noted that Gen. Martin Dempsey had merited the greatest turnout for an event in the Krasno speaking series hosted by the history department. 

On Tuesday, the Krasno Distinguished Professorship welcomed Gen. Dempsey to discuss “U.S. National Security in Uncertain Times” with students, faculty and the general community at Wilson Library. 

Chancellor Carol Folt set the tone for the evening in her introduction as she examined the meaning of “uncertainty” in the context of international affairs. She referenced a phrase of “certain uncertainty,” originally said by Jim Johnson, a professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School.

“We are in times of certain uncertainty,” Folt said. “And in fact, if we really are going to take that very seriously, what we want to do is talk about uncertainty and prepare ourselves for it by understanding it, by thinking about what it means, and exploring it in all of its convictions.”

Gen. Dempsey was welcomed to the stage and added to Folt’s remarks regarding the dangers of certainty. Dempsey referenced the childhood game of “Heads Down, Thumbs Up” to explain how Americans go through life. He described how the game was a metaphor to explain how Americans are focused on their own business, unwilling to view issues from new perspectives. 

“The problem may not be that we live in a world of uncertainty,” Dempsey said. “Of course it’s uncertain, when have any of us been able to predict the future? The problem might be the opposite, though. We might think we know too much about it.”

Many audience members were interested in discussing Dempsey's work under the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. As the chairperson of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2011 to 2015, Dempsey played a key role in advising President Barack Obama.

In order to give a visual of how presidents make decisions, Dempsey provided some insight about the format of meetings in the White House. Dempsey explained that Obama was advised by experts who presented him issues within the context of their perspective.

“That’s actually a positive thing about how our system works,” Dempsey said. “All of the filters are accounted for and then the president, who is the only one that can make the decision, makes the decision.”

Senior Aidan Hennessy has always been interested in international relations and was excited to hear Dempsey speak. He recognizes that the Krasno lectures are a great learning opportunity.

“The benefit of these events being open to the public is that these are not just distinguished speakers but also sometimes former diplomats, and what’s coming up are former politicians and military leaders,” Hennessy said.

Currently, Dempsey is a Rubenstein Fellow at Duke University and focuses on teaching leadership skills. He emphasized that he is optimistic for the future but knows that the United States can only maintain its status as a world power if American leaders maintain high ethical standards.

“If you ask me if there’s anything I worry about, it’s that we shouldn’t lose the desire to be humble and admirable in dealing with people who have less than we do,” Dempsey said.

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