US Secretary of Defense on Priorities for the 21st Century

The Honorable Chuck Hagel, Secretary, US Department of Defense. Introduced by Ivo H. Daalder.

Chuck Hagel, Secretary, US Department of Defense

Event Summary by Richard C. Longworth

Despite war-weariness among the American people, the United States faces new and complicated challenges, not least “Russia’s blatant aggression in Ukraine,” and must remain strong and engaged militarily in the world, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told The Chicago Council Tuesday morning.

“We must remain a nation of big shoulders,” Hagel said in a rhetorical tip of the hat to the 500 Chicagoans who turned out for his breakfast-time speech. “America must not succumb to the temptations of looking inward…We must never just return to the garrison.”

Hagel, a familiar speaker to the Council both during and after his 12 years as a senator from Nebraska, made the case both for a strong US military presence around the world and for necessary spending on the people and technology to keep that military up to date.

Recent public opinion polls, including the Council’s own survey, have shown, in varying degrees, declining public support for America’s global involvement. Hagel acknowledged this reality in the wake of the Afghan and Iraqi wars, but said it would be a mistake to bow to it.

The nation’s active involvement after World War II and especially its embrace of alliances around the world led to an unprecedented era of prosperity–an era that still exists, he said. Americans may be “increasingly skeptical of foreign engagements,” he said, but this misses the point, because Americans themselves are the greatest beneficiaries of this policy.

As the Secretary of Defense, Hagel spoke largely about military matters. But he couched virtually everything he said in the context of globalization and the changing global context. As more nations “gain a stake in the global order that we helped build after World War II,” he said, the US has an obligation to protect and promote that order.

“Turning inward, history teaches us, does not insulate us from the world’s troubles,” he said. “It only forces us to be more engaged later, at a higher cost, at a higher cost in blood and treasure and often on the terms of others. This is perhaps more true than ever in today’s globalized world. Walking away from the world and our relationships is not an option for the United States.”

As 13 years of war come to an end, Hagel said, America’s military faces “new threats, challenges, and opportunities” created by a “fractured” global landscape. Among these, he said, are the rise of China and other Asian powers, the increasing youth population in the Middle East, new technologies including the possibility of cyber warfare, an increased global economic interdependence, increased nationalism, new sources of energy, and the impact of climate change on such strategically vital regions as the Arctic.

But as these new challenges arise, “history and geography still matter,” Hagel said. As examples, he cited the war in Syria, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the “dangerous provocations” of North Korea, the “simmering tensions” between China and Japan, and “Russia’s blatant aggression in Ukraine.” The secretary suggested no solutions for any of these problems, but indicated that no solution would be possible unless the US plays a role, diplomatically and militarily.

As an example, he cited the commitment of the US and NATO to NATO members among Russia’s neighbors, such as Poland and the Baltic, who are upset about Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine.

The nation’s military posture is hampered, Hagel said, by “an irresponsible deferral of Congressional responsibilities”–specifically, the steep budget cuts imposed by “political gridlock” in Washington and the resultant sequester. With the war in Afghanistan winding down, he said, the Defense Department expected a trimmed budget, but “the scale has been more abrupt and steep” because of this Congressional action.

“This is not the political or budget environment that the President and I wanted,” he said, “but it’s the environment we have.”

Within these limits, he cited three priorities for American defense planning and spending.

First, the men and women in the forces themselves and the need to maintain their professionalism and skill. This involves both training and the need to see to the human needs of the forces and their families.

“It’s the responsible thing to do,” he said. “If we don’t, it will hollow out and demoralize our forces.”

Second, the need to invest in military capabilities to deal with non-traditional threats, such as terrorists and insurgents and the danger of cyber warfare. All this requires investments in science, research, and technology, he said.

Hagel noted that this spending benefits American industries, many of them located in the Midwest. He urged the strengthening of DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the Pentagon’s research arm that, among other things, is a key financier of the $320 million digital manufacturing laboratory to be located in Chicago.

The third priority, he said, is the strengthening of alliances and other partnership around the world–“as essential today as it’s ever been.”

Hagel reached into the history of the years before and after World War II to buttress his argument. The Chicago Council itself, he said, was founded in 1922 to counter growing isolationism, in the nation and in the Midwest. He recalled the lessons of World War II, “when we learned that we can’t live alone in peace,” and the success of a multinational and cooperative foreign and military policy following the war.

That policy was framed in “another time of uncertainty and hope,” when the nation was inclined to look inward. But strong leadership in Washington devised the diplomatic, economic, and military framework that guided America and its allies for the next 60 years, he said.

Richard C. Longworth is a senior fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Read more of his program summaries and recent publications or follow his blog.

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