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North American Forum (Washington, D.C.)
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Washington, D.C., Monday, June 16, 2008

Good afternoon. Thank you for that kind introduction, Secretary Perry. 
Some of you may know, I worked with Bill on the Iraq Study Group, sharing the delightful conditions in Baghdad in 2006, and under nicer conditions at the Aspen Strategy Group before my membership in both was abruptly terminated by my current appointment. Bill and I also served together in the Carter administration – but he was considerably more senior than I was. As the under secretary of defense for research and engineering, he was instrumental in developing stealth aircraft and other technologies that have been key to our military’s success over the last two decades. And as secretary of defense, among other things, he had the foresight to host the first-ever Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas in 1995. Secretary Perry, you will be pleased to hear that I’ll be attending the eighth session of this important gathering in Banff this fall. Your legacy continues.
I should add that when I visited Mexico City at the end of April, I learned that I was only the second secretary of defense ever to visit and the first in 12 years. The first – and only other – was, of course, Bill Perry.
Let me begin by thanking our hosts from Mexico, Canada, and the United States:  Pedro Aspe, Peter Lougheed, and George Shultz. 
            My service at CIA and at National Security Council took place under nineSecretaries of State, including George Shultz. George and I had our disagreements from time to time, but I firmly believe he is our greatest secretary of state since George Marshall. I recall the working lunches I shared with him in his elegant dining room at the State Department. While the rest of us gorged ourselves on gourmet cuisine, he would have a piece of toast and cottage cheese. He applied that kind of discipline and attention to detail – perhaps learned as a young Marine in the World War Two – to everything he did. He was world-class in the art of diplomacy, which of course was once described as the ability to say “nice doggie” until you can find a rock. Or telling someone to “go to hell” in such a way that they actually look forward to the trip.
The theme of this conference, now in its fourth year, is “Toward a More Resilient North America.”  This notion, in many ways, originated with our old boss, Ronald Reagan. When he announced his candidacy for president in 1979, Reagan introduced the idea of a North American accord, a precursor of NAFTA. He spoke with passion about developing a “closeness among Canada, Mexico, and the United States” and, throughout his presidency, he called for a “renewed spirit of friendship and cooperation.” He envisioned our borders as meeting places rather than dividing lines, and he asked how we could “create a relationship in which each country can realize its potential to its fullest.” 
So I would like to start our discussion today with the point that we cannot achieve resilience or reach our full potential without security. This is tremendously important given the kind of threats the North American continent faces at the dawn of the 21st century. 
First, some context. Our three countries share nearly 7,500 miles of border, largely unguarded. We also share the largest free trade zone on the planet. Yet collectively, we are united by something even more important:  people.
  • Almost 30 million Americans list their ancestry as Mexican;
  • Over 15,500 companies in the U.S. are owned by Canadians, who employ more than a half-million Americans; and
  • Americans travel to Canada and Mexico more than to any other countries.
Nourishing these relationships is our mutual respect for and interest in free markets, democratic practices, and the rule of law. But what we celebrate as North Americans – the very openness of our three societies – is also perhaps our biggest vulnerability. The Internet, for example, connects criminal elements such as transnational gangs, while providing easy information to illegal arms and drug traders. In too many instances, these groups are better financed and equipped than some elements of our three governments assigned to combat them.  Freedom of movement allows a nexus between narco-traffickers and terrorists, a security concern made all the more alarming by weapons of mass destruction. Because not only do drug runners use low-flying airplanes of every type, but they are now building homemade, semi-submersible vessels that are very hard to detect on the open seas – and can carry tons of cargo. If they can transport drugs, you can only imagine what else they could carry.
The attacks of September 11th forced the United States to reform and strengthen institutions dedicated to defending our homeland. Before that awful day, far too few concerned themselves with the many ways America was vulnerable:  from railroads to sky scrapers, from oil refineries to water reservoirs, from power plants to airplane travel. Prior to 9/11, there was no national consensus on how to deal with terrorists and foreign threats at home. Federal agencies were only engaged on a piecemeal basis without coordinated oversight or direction. Put bluntly, we did not take homeland security seriously. 
A case in point:  the neglect of the United States Coast Guard. Consider that the Fiscal Year 2009 Coast Guard budget request includes the de-commissioning of a ship launched and used during World War II. That the Coast Guard is operating ships that are as old as I am is but one indication of how urgently it needs to be modernized.
            There have been a number of important changes in recent years. We have the U.S. Northern Command and a Department of Homeland Security. Government at the federal, state, and local levels now puts far more effort into protecting our resources, infrastructure, and, more importantly, our people. We also have greater cooperation and integration between military and civilian authorities to include, for example, stronger ties between the National Guard, the state governors, and the federal government. And like many of you, businessmen and women now make it a priority to safeguard their employees, their customers, and their investments.
The defense of our continent is often seen solely in terms of the domestic security issues I have just discussed. When it comes to transnational threats, the “far fight” is in many ways inseparable from “near fight.” What happens in the streets of a distant capital in Asia or Africa can affect citizens in Mexico City, Ottawa, and Washington, D.C.
The role of Afghanistan in the 9/11 attacks reminds us that this is no hypothetical scenario. We fight there now and in other distant lands to prevent another attack at home. In these efforts, we are all grateful to our allies, who also recognize the imperative to fight near the enemy’s goal line rather than our own. Canada is one of the most stalwart members of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Nearly 3,000 Canadian troops are deployed to some of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan, where 85 of them – some quite recently – have made the supreme sacrifice to bring a better way of life to the Afghan people.
Close to home, both in and out of government, we are looking to strengthen existing ties and forge new ones with our neighbors to the north and south. Our bond with Canada was reaffirmed last month at the 50th anniversary of North American Aerospace Defense Command, better known as NORAD. I traveled to Colorado Springs for that occasion and had the chance to personally thank Peter MacKay, Canada’s Minister of National Defence, for his country’s ongoing commitment to NORAD. 
During that trip, we opened a new integrated command center for NORAD and U.S. Northern Command. As I said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, this facility embodies the shared commitment of the United States and Canada to help protect the continent.  The center showed the full evolution of NORAD from its Cold War orientation to one able to deal with a range of continental threats over land, sea, air, and cyberspace. And we were especially pleased to welcome a representative of the Mexican army as a guest.
As mentioned earlier, I recently visited Mexico City, where I met with the heads of the Mexican Army and Navy. Quite frankly, interactions between the U.S. and Mexican militaries in recent years have been few and far between. 
One highlight of my trip was placing a wreath at a memorial to a Mexican fighter-bomber squadron. Some 300 “Aztec Eagles,” all volunteers, deployed with the U.S. Army Air Force in the summer of 1945. These valiant pilots flew nearly 800 missions in the Pacific and helped push the Japanese out of Formosa and Luzon. Some lost their lives. It was a privilege to honor our fallen Mexican comrades, and thank a dozen or so surviving veterans who had served a common cause.
In the spirit of that occasion and that trip, I hope to see more interaction and cooperation between the U.S. and Mexican armed forces going forward. We remember, with gratitude, the spirit of cooperation shown by Mexico when its army crossed the border to assist Americans after Hurricane Katrina.
Last May, in a speech right here at the Chamber of Commerce, the Mexican Ambassador to the United States said, “if you don’t know where you’re going, not even a compass will help you.” If we all agree on where we’re going – and that is, to again invoke today’s theme, “toward a more resilient North America” – perhaps a common security agenda may provide some direction. 
Providing a safe environment for the entire hemisphere is a collective responsibility. We must find ways to capitalize on the security and defense interests shared by Canada, Mexico, and the United States, while respecting and honoring the sovereignty of each country. 
There are plenty of areas to build on. Three come to mind: 
  • One, emergency planning and response to natural and man-made disasters. The new "Canada-U.S. Civil Assistance Plan" is a step in the right direction, which will enable Canadian and U.S. militaries to support the armed forces of the other country during a civil emergency;
  • Two, expanding the Security and Prosperity Partnership; and
  • Finally, continuing to improve counter-narcotics cooperation.

Regarding the third point, the Merida Initiative reflects the importance of Mexico’s and the United States’ shared commitment and responsibilities in combating drug cartels along our border.  Mexico should be commended highly for its efforts, which have come with a high cost in money and human life.   As this initiative gains momentum, we might consider other ways we can work together to catch drug runners and arms smugglers, such as sharing more information via remote sensing or unmanned aerial vehicles.

Looking more broadly throughout the hemisphere, we should safeguard gains in democratic governance and free markets by enhancing relationships with our allies’ militaries and defense ministries. Colombia is a good example. Even with capable security forces, it has had a difficult time defeating narco-terrorists like the FARC, who use ungoverned spaces at home and, it seems, in neighboring states to re-arm, train, and traffic in drugs. 
Thanks to their own efforts and some outside help, Colombians are far better off today than they were five years ago. But to be fully successful, other countries in this hemisphere must join together to deny space to narco-terrorists and other transnational criminals. For its part, the American Congress can help with resources to promote that objective, and it can approve the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, which will help Colombia consolidate its security gains; strengthen its economy; and reduce the regional threat of narco-terrorism. 
My grandfather was a station agent for the Santa Fe railroad in a little western Kansas town. As a boy, I would visit him in the summer and spend all day at the train station. There, at the dawn of the Cold War and during the Korean War, I’d watch the trains come and go and imagine what it would be like to see the world, to follow the tracks to the horizon.  These memories do more than just reveal my age – they also underscore the stark differences between then and now.
So much has changed. We no longer face well-defined adversaries such as the Axis powers of World War Two or the opposing superpower we faced in the Cold War for more than four decades. Today’s enemies are more shadowy and elusive. And in the world of suicide bombers, surrender will never be an option. In such a complex and dangerous world, like-minded nations like ours must continue to pull together if we are to preserve the peace and protect our people. 
 I began with a quote from a speech by President Reagan.  In that same speech, President Reagan said that “a developing closeness between the United States, Canada, and Mexico would serve notice on friend and foe alike that we were prepared for a long haul, looking outward again and confident of our future.” As we look to our neighbors north and south, I hope that together we can continue to create such a future.  Thank you.