Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants the Trump administration to “push back” against Russia.

“I would like to see more criticism and pushback of [Russian president Vladimir] Putin and Putin’s behavior,” says Gates, who met with Donald Trump in early December.

“I told the president-elect,” says Gates, “that the administration — when it comes to Russia — is going to have to thread the needle between pushing back against Putin’s aggressions and interventionism and meddling and bullying, and figuring out how to stop a downward spiral in the relationship that could become quite dangerous.”

“They’ve got to thread the same needle with China,” he adds. “How do we push back in terms of protecting our interests, but at the same time prevent the relationship from getting into a place that’s potentially very dangerous?”

“I think we could have pushed back harder in previous years, in terms of freedom of navigation exercises around some of these islands. I think there’s some space to be tougher with China on some of these trade issues and in terms of the South China Sea, but without pushing the relationship into dangerous territory.”

Gates was secretary of defense from 2006 to 2011, serving under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Previously he served as an officer in the Air Force; spent 20 years with the CIA, including a spell as the agency’s director under George H.W. Bush; and also served on the National Security Council.

Gates has spent a lifetime contemplating leadership. He's the author of "A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform From Fifty Years of Public Service."

During the election campaign, Gates described Trump as “unfit to be commander in chief.” But now that Trump is commander in chief, Gates says he told Trump, when he met him last month that “it’s important for all of us for him to be successful, especially in the national security realm, and I would do everything I could to help him.”

Gates is encouraged by the people that Trump has appointed to his security team. “They’re all strong, independent-minded people who I’m confident will tell the president exactly what they think.”

Gates personally suggested his friend, Rex Tillerson, as secretary of state, during his meeting with Trump.

Gates is critical of the lack of discipline in the administration’s public messaging.

“Credibility is very important,” says Gates, “and I think it’s important for the folks in the White House to realize that credibility is important, not just with their own base, but also with the Congress and with foreign governments. When the president speaks, he has to have credibility, and particularly in those moments of crisis.”

Gates says he perceives the administration as working in “two parallel universes.” He contrasts the sometimes “jarring” tweets and public statements with what Gates sees as “a calm, deliberative, decision-making process behind closed doors, where you see a very effective businessman making thoughtful decisions.”

When asked how he knows that this is the situation, Gates acknowledges that’s just his perception, as he has “no inside scoops.”

“The problem is that some of the public commentary can impact on the decisions, and they just need to bear that in mind.”

“There is a concern,” says Gates, about how the new administration might disrupt the international architecture the US has built up since World War II. Just a week ago, Trump gave an interview to two European papers and called NATO obsolete, and in his inaugural address insisted he will always put “America first.”

Gates says this could compound an existing problem. “First of all, I believe that some of the policies followed by the Obama administration gave the impression to the rest of the world that the US was withdrawing from its global leadership role, that we’ve had for seven decades.”

“I do worry,” he adds, “that some of the new administration’s actions simply reinforce that and when we create that kind of a vacuum internationally, other forces, other powers, are going to step into that vacuum, notably Russia or China or in the Middle East, Iran. So I do hope that there is careful consideration given not only to the reality but the appearance of some of these decisions, because if the rest of the world thinks that we are continuing to withdraw, basically to, within, ‘fortress America,’ it is going to leave a vacuum, and those that fill that vacuum will not be benign.”

From PRI's The World ©2016 PRI