Eagles on the World Stage: Gates, Huntsman, and Tillerson in a Cold World


Luke Phillips


Original Image, by Luke Phillips

Perhaps it is only natural for an Eagle Scout, foreign policy Realist, and moderate, Hamiltonian Republican like myself to see the stewardship of the country’s and world’s future in similarly-minded public figures much more advanced in their careers. Perhaps I suffer from a case of institutional solipsism, seeing the virtues promoted by my own organization as those most necessary for the preservation of national greatness and world order. Perhaps I am navel-gazing adoringly at my own principles, to the exclusion of the reality of the world.

Regardless, the facts cannot be ignored. Three of America’s most respected public servants and contemporary foreign policy Realists are Eagle Scouts who have occupied positions of high leadership in American foreign policy.


Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who served both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama as chief of the Pentagon, started off his career in public life with nothing to his name but his Eagle Scout badge and his bachelor’s degree from William and Mary. He was a Vigil Honor member of the Order of the Arrow, Scouting’s honor society, and in college participated in Alpha Phi Omega, a service fraternity chiefly operated by former Scouts.

Over the course of almost five decades (so far) of either government work or publicly-oriented service in the private sector, Gates served in the United States Air Force, the Central Intelligence Agency, and various universities, corporate boards, and government commissions. A renowned Cold Warrior, he served as Deputy National Security Advisor and CIA Director under President George H.W. Bush during one of the most critical pivot points in world history, working closely with that high-priest of Realism, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. A sobering President George W. Bush appointed him Secretary of Defense in 2006, a role in which he oversaw the conduct of the Iraqi and Afghan surges, and President Barack Obama asked him to stay on to continue managing those complex wars.

Gates left government in 2011, according to his memoirs out of disgust with the Obama Administration’s lack of strategic discipline. He’s been praised across the board as one of the last bastions of foreign policy sobriety in an age of neoconservative militarists, liberal internationalists, and a rising tide of Paulite isolationists. Walter Russell Mead’s review of his memoir in The American Interest and Richard Russell’s plea for his return to public life in the pages of The National Interest testify to his old-fashioned “country first” ethos and disciplined competence in security affairs. As we’ll see, his Scouting upbringing very much conditioned his self-image and perspectives on duty to country.


U.S. Ambassador to China Jon M. Huntsman Jr.

Governor and Ambassador Jon M. Huntsman Jr., a 2012 candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and a perennial activist for bipartisan political cooperation, was shaped by Scouting from the beginning as well. Son of an energy titan, high school dropout, keyboardist for the rock band “Wizard,” Mormon missionary, and UPenn graduate, Huntsman is an Eagle Scout who also followed the trail of public service.

After working in the Reagan White House as an aide, Huntsman was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Singapore by President George H.W. Bush. He worked in business throughout the 90s and then served as Deputy U.S. Trade Representative under President George W. Bush. After serving as a very popular Governor of Utah, Huntsman was appointed U.S. Ambassador to China by President Barack Obama, resigning in 2011 and running (very unsuccessfully) against his former boss for the Presidency. His experience in diplomacy and international commerce is as deep as his experience in domestic politics, and he was often cited as 2012’s Republican presidential candidate most experienced in foreign affairs.

Probably because he never served as a Defense or State Secretary, few authors have taken the time to analyze Huntsman’s strategic temperament in depth or detail. But he is generally regarded to be a realist-internationalist in the same mold as Robert Gates, weary of overly exuberant displays of American power, prudent in its application, yet still cognizant and proud of the need for a strong America on the world stage. A Foreign Policy article during the 2012 campaign asserted that Huntsman was on the left side of the Republican foreign policy spectrum but generally very much within the tradition of moderate Republican Realism. If his recent pronouncements are any guide, he will continue to hold such views if elected to the U.S. Senate in 2018 or appointed Deputy Secretary of State or U.S. Ambassador to Russia.


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

Rex Tillerson was a controversial pick for Secretary of State, as any Trump nominee always would be. He had no experience in government prior to his nomination and was formerly the CEO of ExxonMobil, one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful corporations. But a look back at his legacy and ideas calms the nerves.

First off, Tillerson, like Huntsman and Gates, is an Eagle Scout. Like Gates, he is a member of Alpha Phi Omega and a Distinguished Eagle Scout who also served as National President of the Boy Scouts of America in his adulthood. A friend of his evidently once told a newspaper that “to understand Rex Tillerson, you need to understand Scouting.”

A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and a civil engineer by training, Tillerson has had a long career in the international energy business and served as CEO of ExxonMobil from 2006 to 2016. Though he had no formal government experience before being nominated for Trump’s Secretary of State, he did have the recommendations of such acclaimed public servants as Henry Kissinger, Condi Rice, and fellow Eagle Scout Robert Gates, which suggests he will be a voice of realist sobriety in an otherwise troubled Trump Administration.

Unlike Huntsman and Gates, we do not yet know how Tillerson will function as a public servant. But if his Scouting legacy and his Realist temperament, documented by FPRI scholar Colin Dueck, is any guide, he will do a distinguished job worthy of the Eagle Charge he took so many decades ago as a teenager.


The teenaged future President of the United States, Gerald Ford (holding the flag)


I’ve thus far made a point of hyping up Gates, Huntsman, and Tillerson’s Scouting legacies as being just as important as, if not more important than, their subsequent professional experiences in shaping their character. I do this because in my (admittedly old-fashioned) view of the relationship between politics, individual greatness, and moral character, the early formation of a leader’s character, worldview, and public style has profound implications for their performance in institutions further along in their careers. Capacity for adapting to institutional constraints, a profound understanding of history and politics, and a pragmatic but principled vision of the future are of course similarly important, but it is the things individuals carry with them and inside them that largely affects their ability to become leaders and influence society. James David Barber has an interesting study of this in his magnum opus, “The Presidential Character.”

Boy Scouting is, before anything else, a program designed to train good men and good citizens while they’re in their formative and impressionable stages of youth and adolescence. Clearly one does not need to be a Boy Scout and have their character shaped by that institution to be a good person or a good citizen, and clearly some Scouts go on to be less-than-average leaders and less-than-benign people. But on balance, it would seem to me that the Scouting program did well in the cases of Gates, Huntsman, and Tillerson in producing competent, patriotic, self-reliant men and citizens, and could well be something of a “farm team” for future leaders in the same field.

But first, we should look at what Boy Scouting is.

The Boy Scouts of America is a rank-based organization for middle-school to high-school-aged boys, ages 11-18. Boy Scouts complete various requirements- service hours and service projects, skills-based Merit Badges, organizational leadership positions, outdoor experiences and adventures, and other programs- to advance through the ranks towards the hallowed rank of Eagle Scout. Before becoming an Eagle Scout, a scout must have demonstrated propensities towards leadership, service, outdoor adventure, and self-reliance through accomplishing a checklist of requirements, including leading an original service project to their community. Mine was the construction of an amphitheater at Kitsap Memorial State Park in Washington State; I am sure Gates, Huntsman, and Tillerson’s exceeded mine in scope and usefulness to their communities.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Gates, Huntsman, and Tillerson routinely and subconsciously reflect on things impressed upon them through their years as Scouts. Leadership through example, the active cultivation of personal character, the constant acquisition of skills in the pursuit of self-reliance, and an undying patriotic urge towards public service and good citizenship are the qualities not merely of strong youths, but of strong men and outstanding citizens, and though not all Eagle Scouts live up to these ideals, they are nonetheless expected of all who pass through Scouting. This excerpt from the Eagle Charge, given to all Eagle Scouts upon their attainment of that rank, pretty well encapsulates the social vision of Scouting:

You are a marked man… Our country has had a great past. You are here to make the future greater… I charge you to be among those who dedicate their skills and ability to the common good. Build America on the solid foundations of clean living, honest work, unselfish citizenship, and reverence for God, and you will leave behind you a record of which every Scout may be justly proud.”

Boy Scouting is supposed to breed good men and good citizens who can build and carry forth American greatness. The “lifestyle” thus promoted- individual excellence in the service of the public good- is not too far off from the sentiments that President Theodore Roosevelt, an early supporter of the Boy Scout movement, encouraged in American citizens. Here’s President Roosevelt on the patriotic purposes of Scouting- 

The Boy Scout movement is distinctly an asset to our country for the development of efficiency, virility, and good citizenship. It is essential that its leaders be men of strong, wholesome character; of unmistakable devotion to our country, its customs and ideals, as well as in soul and by law citizens thereof, whose wholehearted loyalty is given to this nation, and to this nation alone.”

Jumping forward to the 21st Century, here’s Secretary Gates addressing the BSA 2010 National Jamboree at Fort AP Hill, Virginia:

“…your scouting experience is the first major step toward the most important goal of all: becoming a good man, a man of integrity and decency, a man of moral courage, a man unafraid of hard work, a man of strong character – the kind of person who built this country and made it into the greatest democracy and the greatest economic powerhouse in the history of the world.” 

Note, in all three passages, the social purpose behind the excellence Scouting cultivates in boys- the common good, the public interest, and national greatness for the United States of America.


President Theodore Roosevelt with early Boy Scouts. Roosevelt was the first and only “Chief Scout Citizen.”


In its foundations (and to understand any organization, entity, or polity, one must understand its foundations) Boy Scouting has never been merely a lifestyle movement. It has always been bound up with American patriotism and, particularly, the civic nationalist “Preparedness” movements of the pre-World Wars era in American history, espoused by figures like President Roosevelt, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, and especially General Leonard Wood. (Though Scout executives have always rightly and accurately denied that the organization was meant to train boys to be soldiers.)

The Preparedness movement’s proponents argued that national survival relied on a certain level of national preparedness in a competitive world, in all sectors–from production to manpower to finance to technology to military training. In an informal sense, the Boy Scouts of America was originally designed as a proactive yet subconscious element of American national security- a youth program creating prepared and patriotic citizens, ready to spend their lives serving their country in whatever capacity. Need proof? Look no further than the Boy Scout Motto- “Be Prepared.”

It is interesting to note that some of Boy Scouting’s most vociferous critics, on both the social left and political right, have accused Scouting of being a militaristic organization similar to the Nazis’ Hitler Youth and other fascist outfits. I would argue that that critique is not terribly far off the mark, but still misguided.

Early 20th Century Fascism was a radical and intemperate offshoot of 19th Century nationalism, with roots in similarly collectivist and patriotic sentiments taken to their illogical extremes. Just as the New Deal was the American response to industrialization while Nazi corporatism and Soviet collectivism were the German and Russian responses to the same phenomenon, respectively, so the imperatives of 20th Century great power competition elicited similar responses in very different industrial societies.

The Scouting movement (which has since spread to almost every nation in the modern world) was designed as an institution that would cultivate good citizenship and personal excellence towards a national purpose- the cause of American greatness and ordered liberty. Similar movements in Fascist states utilized the same means for very different ends- unflinching loyalty to the state and the racial nation. Though the means may have been empirically similar, and the ends may have been superficially similar, the ultimate moral purposes could not have been further apart. American Scouting is rooted in Americanism, which is both nationalist and liberal; the equivalents of Scouting in the fascist states were nationalist but wholly illiberal, designed for totalitarian rather than free societies. American Scouting is designed only for a free society.


Secretary Gates and Ambassador Huntsman with two other great Realists- General Brent Scowcroft and General David Petraeus


So what does all this have to do with Secretary Gates, Ambassador Huntsman, and Secretary Tillerson’s realist-internationalism?

I would contend that Eagle Scouts- with plenty of caveats and exceptions, of course- are more likely, should they enter the foreign policy sphere professionally and attain high office, to become realist-internationalists like their patron and “Chief Scout Citizen” President Theodore Roosevelt, than they are to be isolationists, liberal internationalists, neoconservative hawks, or otherwise non-realist foreign policy practitioners.

Now, Boy Scouts and Eagle Scouts ascending to national power have not always necessarily been TR-style Realist-Internationalists- note President John F. Kennedy’s decidedly-non-Realist “Pay any Price… to Assure the Survival and Success of Liberty” quip. (JFK was a Scout, but never quite made Eagle.) Note also Eagle Scout-turned-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

But it seems that the basic values of Boy Scouting instill a few qualities in Eagle Scouts that, if nothing else, make it more likely that should they enter public life, they retain the rugged nationalism of Teddy Rooseveltian figures.

First, a commitment to American patriotism cognizant of, but not rooted solely in, American ideals. The training of Scouts in the rough arts of self-reliance and pragmatic leadership ties them up in the cultural qualities of the very real American nation, in ways that cannot be solely attributed to the founding republican idealism of Franklin and Jefferson. This rootedness in and practice of post-Founding American traits- the classic “cowboy” qualities alongside the classic “entrepreneur” qualities- institutionalized by BSA’s Merit Badge, outdoor adventure, and leadership requirements, turns Scouts into something more like quintessential Americans rooted in both the culture and ideals of American identity. This makes Scouting-style patriotism distinct from mere flag-waving and misapplied quoting of the Declaration of Independence.

Second, a commitment to pragmatic public service in any form, government or business or civil society or otherwise. The institutionalized emphasis on service to community and nation as the purpose of excellence, which is instilled in Scouts from a young age, can probably go on to explain why so many other statistics from business to political to military to religious leaders feature Eagle Scouts and other scouts in high numbers. Scouting is neither a sure path nor the only path to pragmatic leadership in American society, but it certainly is one that imbues its followers with distinctive qualities of pragmatism, or so it would seem.

Particularistic American patriotism and pragmatism in public service, alongside the aforementioned qualities of character and excellence Scouting attempts to instill, are certainly not the only things that go into the training of a Kissingerian/Scowcroftian grand strategist. Much professional development and a deep study of history and human nature are indispensable requirements, without which the Scouting virtues would never produce a Realist-Internationalist statesman. But if James David Barber was correct in asserting that early character formation goes a long way in shaping a person’s destiny, it would seem that the Scouting experiences of Gates, Huntsman, and Tillerson were not entirely inconsequential in shaping them as public servants.



I would be amiss if I didn’t highlight the stakes of our present moment, so I shall turn you to my old boss Adam Garfinkle’s excellent essay in the current edition of The American Interest, “Same World, Lonely World, Cold World.” First, some background: it seems to me that under current fiscal and social circumstances, the level of global engagement of the second Obama Administration is probably the maximum the American public and American government can handle over a protracted period of time, regardless of the wishes of a Paul Wolfowitz or an Anne-Marie Slaughter. This is quite a bit of engagement, of course; but the election of President Donald Trump has capped it right there.

Garfinkle outlines three potential strategic models the Trump Administration could possibly pursue, then: a maintenance of Obama-era international commitments to the liberal international order, or “Same World;” a Paulite reduction of American commitments everywhere, a new isolationism, or “Lonely World;” or alternatively a conscious shift to “the elusive apple of Henry Kissinger’s eye,” a post-liberal world order of regional spheres of influence and concerts of great powers.

My own opinion, as a temperamental conservative, is that the maintenance of the “Same World” liberal international order would be best, but that due to the aforementioned fiscal and social constraints and, not least, the Trump Administration’s potential strategic incoherence, we will likely see a reversion to extreme oscillations between isolationist “Lonely World” bouts of ignorance and incompetence, and Bush-style overreactions to catastrophic international developments. This flight from prudence, this schizophrenic isolationist/reactionary persuasion that has forever been the bane of wise American statecraft, will be the new normal so long as anti-strategist Trump is in office, and will more likely than not result in the final destruction of the postwar international order.

I could be very, very wrong. After all, Rex Tillerson is Secretary of State, General Mattis is Secretary of Defense, and General McMaster is National Security Advisor; the three may well steady President Trump’s hand. As I argued recently at Glimpse From the Globe, this could be the dawn of a new age of American realism.

But we don’t know that. It is prudent to expect the worst. And the worst would be a Trump Administration full of infighting, strategic drift, and oscillating isolationism and hawkishness- a period of instability in American strategy.

That means we could well be in for a historic watershed, and by 2020 or so the adults in the room will need to step in and, with the wisdom and skill of a Theodore Roosevelt or a Henry Kissinger, manage world order. I sincerely hope it does not involve catastrophic war; I sincerely believe that, as Garfinkle notes, it will involve cynical “Cold World” style great-power diplomacy, in a world of new nationalisms across the board. Perhaps through great-power diplomacy a new, rebalanced liberal order can be built.

The first imperatives of good statecraft are the preservation of society through the preclusion or victorious conclusion of catastrophic revolution, and the preservation of the state through the preclusion or victorious conclusion of catastrophic war. The best way to do this is to promote the preservation and ameliorative reformation of political order, domestic and international. That means that talented reformers with a dark view of what is possible make for the greatest statesmen. Lincoln and the two Roosevelts, America’s greatest statesmen, were nothing but such conservatively-tempered reformers. We need someone like that for the forthcoming international storms and domestic convulsions if we’re going to preserve anything remotely like America.

But whoever that President or other leader is, they’d do well to listen to Eagle Scouts who happen to be realist-internationalists like Secretary Gates, Ambassador Huntsman, and Secretary Tillerson.

My own hope is that by 2020, a newly-elected President Jon Huntsman retains Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and pulls out of retirement a new, second-term Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, forming a great, responsible, realist-internationalist “Team of Eagles.” President Huntsman would be interesting, too; David Brooks wrote at the New York Times that we need another Gerald Ford to pick up the pieces and restore the public’s faith in government after our present Trumpian Watergate. Huntsman fits Brooks’s bill of a “decent, modest, experienced public servant,” and like President Ford, is a Realist-Internationalist, a moderate Hamiltonian Republican, and an Eagle Scout. I can dream, can’t I?

The temperament of the Team of Eagles might be useful for building the something which is restorative and new, yet traditional and old, that Garfinkle describes:

“A restored American liberal nationalism, from which a liberal internationalism can be patiently built with likeminded others… is far preferable to reaching for an unattainable globalist utopia (or dystopia), and it is far preferable to a regression back into zero-sum, illiberal ways of thinking and acting. 

Is it possible? It has to be, or I fear we are lost.”

Can Eagle Scouts like these three great public servants, or those who come after them, literally save the world?

They might have to.

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  1. We Are All Pontius Pilate | abiasedperspective - April 21, 2017

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