Seal of the Department of Defense U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
On the Web:
Media contact: +1 (703) 697-5131/697-5132
Public contact:
or +1 (703) 571-3343

Oxford Analytica (Blenheim Palace, United Kingdom)
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, United Kingdom, Friday, September 19, 2008

      Thank you, David, for that kind introduction.
      It’s a pleasure to be in the United Kingdom and a privilege to be here in such an august place. I’ve never had dinner in such a splendid setting. And I must tell you, having spent some years in Texas, I am very fond of foods that are not particularly good for you. And I will quote Winston Churchill many times tonight, but one of his statements won me over a long time ago. He said, during the Second World War, “Almost all the food faddists I have ever known, nut-eaters and the like, have died young after a long period of senile decay. The British soldier is far more likely to be right than scientists. All he cares about is beef . . . The way to lose the war is to try to force the British public into a diet of milk, oatmeal, potatoes, etcetera, washed down on gala occasions with a little lime juice.”
      Frankly, it is also a pleasure to be outside of the United States during our presidential campaign. We Americans, as a people, get a little strange every four years. President Truman, at Oxford to receive an honorary degree, remarked on this, noting that “in election years we behave somewhat as primitive peoples do at the time of the full moon.”
      In addition to conducting the business of state, these visits are also a chance to celebrate and take stock of the special relationship between our two countries. 
      I’ve just come from Iraq and Afghanistan. In my visits to the front lines I have had the opportunity to see troops from the United Kingdom, and, as always, have been deeply impressed by their valor and the professionalism. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, British fighting men and women – to paraphrase a poet from the Great War – have more than done their bit, and had their share.
      Any relationship, however special, will have its tense and awkward moments.
      I recall back in 1989, when I was Deputy National Security Advisor in the first Bush administration. The President had made a historic decision to sharply cut our conventional forces in Europe. And it fell to Larry Eagleburger, the then-Deputy Secretary of State, and myself, to sell this proposal to our NATO allies.
      Our first stop on a secret trip was here in the United Kingdom. We knew that if we could just make it past Margaret Thatcher, the rest would be a walk in the park.
      After being ushered in to her parlor, we handed the Prime Minister President Bush’s letter explaining the proposed reductions. She questioned us knowledgably and at length.  At long last, but not surprisingly, she pledged her support. As she escorted us out, she smilingly told Larry and myself that the two of us were always welcome at Ten Downing Street. And then her face turned glacial, and she said, “but never again on this subject.” In a later conversation with then-President Bush, she would refer to the two of us as Tweedledee and Tweedledum. I always considered Eagleburger to be Tweedledum.
      It is impossible for an American to speak at a place like this without invoking the lion-hearted Englishman who was born on these grounds.  Churchill’s stirring wartime oratory will never be forgotten in America. He was also a marvelous observer of human nature and spirit – particularly the customs of those he called “our kinsmen from across the ocean.”
      He groused famously about the United States: the “toilet paper too thin, the newspaper’s too fat!” As you would imagine, he didn’t care for Prohibition – it was, he said, an “amazing exhibition” of “arrogance” and “impotence.”
      And as for American politics, he said: “I could never run for President of the United States. All that handshaking of people I didn’t give a damn about would kill me.”
      In 1946, Churchill visited President Harry Truman. And Truman had made a point of changing the American presidential seal, so the bald eagle would face the olive branch, rather than the arrows. Upon being told this, Churchill remarked, “Why not put the eagle’s neck on a swivel so that it could turn to the right or the left as the occasion demanded?”
      Here of course Churchill was on to a larger point about being prepared both to wage war and to seek peace – a point that is a proper introduction to my topic tonight:  the need to balance restraint in international affairs with the resolve and the will to back up our commitments and defend our interests when called upon.
      It’s a timely discussion in light of recent events in the Caucasus, and the debate over how the West should respond. It's also more than appropriate in this palace, monument to a great protector of the liberties of Europe – the Duke of Marlborough – and the birthplace of his famous descendant.  It is amazing to think that Sir Winston, after researching his mammoth Life of Marlborough inside these walls for so long, published the final volume in September 1938, the very same month that Neville Chamberlain went to Munich and effectively ceded the Sudetenland to Hitler. As a result of his prescient warnings about Nazi Germany, and his rejection of appeasement, Churchill is often cited – particularly on my side of the Atlantic – whenever a crisis strikes or an adversary threatens.
      And still today, Munich is invoked as a case study of the need to confront tyrants, adversaries, and threats early lest inaction bring war and even genocide.  
      But if Munich 1938 – 70 years ago this month – represents one lesson that’s important, there is another equally important lesson of history, one that still scars this island and the nations across the Channel. And that is the lesson of August 1914, where a combination of miscalculation, hubris, bellicosity, fear of looking weak, and a runaway nationalism led to a cataclysmic and unnecessary conflict.
      In the crudest sense, failure to recognize one lesson – August 1914 – leads to the Somme. Failing to properly heed the other – September 1938 – leads to Dunkirk and Dachau.
      For much of the past century, Western psychology, rhetoric, and policy-making on matters of war and peace has been framed by, and often lurched between, these two poles – between excessive pressures to take military action and excessive restraint, between a too eager embrace of the use of military force and an extreme aversion to it.
      For the Western democracies, over-learning the lessons of World War I – that conflict must be avoided at all costs – helped lead to Munich.  For the United States, over-learning the lessons of Munich – often cited by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson – helped lead to Vietnam.
      I confess that as I prepare once again to retire from a life mostly spent in intelligence and defense that began 42 years ago, I have become quite modest with respect to grandiose pronouncements and forecasts about the future or our ability to discern it, especially when applying the so-called “lessons of history.” The noted American historian, Gordon Wood, has written, “History does not teach lots of little lessons. Insofar as it teaches any lessons, it teaches only one big one:  that nothing ever works out quite the way its managers intended or expected.” Indeed. 
      Even one of the most prescient statesmen of the 20th century, the same Churchill who was later so inciteful, had moments when the crystal ball went cloudy. In 1908, he said: “I think it is greatly to be deprecated that persons should try and spread the belief in this country that war between Great Britain and Germany is inevitable. It is all nonsense.” Or Churchill again in 1924: “A war with Japan! . . . I do not believe there is the slightest chance of it in our lifetime.” 
      One of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s closest advisors, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, said this about World War II: “Our intelligence had proved to be wrong on nearly everything. American intelligence services let us down at every point . . . We had enormously underestimated the strength and striking power of Hitler. We had overestimated the staying power of France. We had overestimated the strength of England. We had overestimated the attitude and stamina of Belgium. We had terribly underestimated Japan, at least her immediate striking power. We had terribly underestimated the power of Russia.”
      And there are many other subsequent – and more recent – examples of failures to anticipate threats and challenges or to evaluate accurately their magnitude or immediacy.  In short, I believe that the statesman would be well advised to listen, in contrast to the Roman emperors whose man in the chariot whispered “sic transit Gloria mundi” – all glory is fleeting – rather to listen to those who simply whisper, “Sir, we’re not sure what the hell is going on here.”
      Today, we face a set of global security challenges that may be unprecedented in complexity and scope – presenting dilemmas that do not lend themselves to a simple choice between popular conceptions of Churchill and Chamberlain.
      The period following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War unleashed old ethnic, religious, and nationalist hatreds and rivalries that had largely been buried since the Great War: The ethnic and religious slaughter in the Balkans; Russia’s seeming return to Czarist habits and aspirations; the fault lines between Sunni and Shia in Iraq and across the Middle East.  The cast of characters sounds disturbingly familiar even at a century’s remove.
      So history – in all of its contingent and tragic aspects – plainly did not die with the end of the Cold War as one American wrote, but has emerged again with a vengeance.  It has returned to a world that is far more interdependent than the worlds of 1914 or 1938. And the monsters and pathologies of a long ago world have been joined by new forces of instability and conflict – terrorist networks rooted in violent extremism; rising and resurgent nation-states with new wealth and aspirations; proliferation of dangerous weapons and materials; authoritarian states enriched with oil profits and discontented with their place in the international order.
      Still, given even the jaded disposition of an old spy, there are ample grounds for optimism.  First and foremost is the extraordinary growth of political and economic freedom around the world since I last served in government 15 years ago.   
      But to secure these remarkable gains, and protect our most vital interests and aspirations in this global environment, the next American administration, working with our allies and partners, will need to employ a pragmatic blend of resolve and restraint to deal with the threats that confront us.
      This applies to the choices we face with regard to Russia. At this point I should note that for the first time, both the United States Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense have doctorates in Russian studies. A fat lot of good that’s done us.
      Three post-Cold War U.S. presidents have endeavored to build closer ties with Russia based on a belief that whatever our differences, we shared basic economic and security interests.
      Starting last fall, Secretary Rice and I began what we hoped would be a long-term strategic dialogue with our Russian counterparts. As part of that effort we:
-        Supported Russian accession to the World Trade Organization;
-        Promoted cooperation with Russia on missile defense; and
-        Engaged on a range of areas, as outlined at the Sochi summit last April by President Bush.
      Russia’s recent behavior raises questions about how successful we can be in trying to pursue a constructive relationship.
      Now it is true that even authoritarian regimes have legitimate security interests. But Russian claims that 10 ballistic missile interceptors in Central Europe undermine their strategic nuclear arsenal, or that NATO democracies on their borders represent a cordon sanitaire, strain credulity and smack of old Soviet agitprop. I stand by what I said in Munich at the Wehrkunde Conference last year.  I took the podium after President Putin gave a speech that sounded like something out of a 1950s Communist Party Congress.  And my response was:  “one Cold War is enough.”
      In reality, Russia’s policies are borne of a grievance-based desire to dominate its “near abroad,” not an ideology-based effort to dominate the globe.  And Russia’s current actions – however egregious – do not represent the existential and global threat that the Soviet Union represented. Instead, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday, Russia is trying “[to draw] benefits from international norms, markets, and institutions, while challenging their very foundation” – but, ultimately, she said, a “19th century Russia and a 21st century Russia cannot operate in the world side by side.”  
      As someone who used to prepare estimates of Soviet military strength for several American presidents, I can attest that despite all of the recent improvements and ongoing modernization programs, Russia’s conventional military remains a shadow of its Soviet predecessor in size and capability. The images of the Russian armor and artillery overwhelming  Georgia’s tiny military – an active force of some 30,000 troops – does  not reverse that basic reality.
      For more than four decades, American presidents of both political parties strove mightily to contain the aggression of Russia’s Soviet predecessor without military confrontation – an effort that consumed most of my professional life. With the added perspective of having signed nearly 1,400 condolence letters since taking this post, I see no reason to change that approach now.
      The Russian leadership might seek to exorcise past humiliations and aspire to recapture past glory along with past territory. But mauling and menacing small democracies does not a great power make. 
      The nations of not just Europe, but also Central Asia and the Far East, now look at Russia through a different set of lenses. As Foreign Secretary Miliband said last month, as a result of what happened in Georgia, “Russia is more isolated, less trusted and less respected.” 
      I believe the Georgia incursion will, over time, be recognized as a Pyrrhic victory at best and a costly strategic overreach. Europe and the United States will help Georgia rebuild, and in the weeks and months ahead, will be coming to other decisions about our relationship with Russia – decisions that could, among other consequences, affect Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
      Though I’ve warned tonight against basing rhetoric or policy decisions on strained historical analogies, I can’t help but be influenced here by some of my past experiences in government.
      The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981, and Moscow’s deployment of SS-20 missiles to eastern Europe helped unite reluctant allies, whose resolute countermeasures helped set the stage for deep reductions in nuclear arms and the ultimate bankruptcy and demise of the Soviet Union. Aggressive behavior produced unwelcome results – for the aggressor.
      At the end of the day, Russia faces a decision: to be a fully integrated and responsible partner in the international community which we would welcome – or, as Secretary Rice suggested, to be an isolated and antagonistic nation viewed by much of the world as little more than a gas station for Europe.
      To manage diverse challenges in the years ahead, we – America and Europe together – will need strength and solidarity as we have demonstrated in the past.  Our policies and responses must show a mixture of resolve and restraint – the proverbial arrows and olive branches of Truman’s eagle. To be firm but not fall into a pattern of rhetoric or actions that create self-fulfilling prophecies; to heed the lessons of both 1914 and 1938 but not be trapped by either.
      We need to be careful about the commitments we make, but we must be willing to keep the commitments once made. In the case of NATO, Article Five must mean what it says. As the allied troops fighting in Afghanistan can attest, NATO is not a talk shop nor a Renaissance Weekend on steroids.
      In the United States, I’ve pushed for more emphasis on, and resources for, non-military tools of national power. That is not the problem on this side of the Atlantic. For example, only five out of 26 allies meet the NATO standard of spending two percent of GDP on national defense.  Despite the best intentions of allied governments and militaries, and despite having more than two million men and women in uniform among NATO’s European members, the Alliance nonetheless struggles to scrape together a few thousand more troops and a few dozen helicopters for our commanders in Afghanistan.
      One of the triumphs of the last century was the pacification of Europe after ages of ruinous and bloody wars. But I believe we have reached an inflection point, where much of the continent has gone too far in the other direction. Demilitarization has gone from a blessing into a potential impediment to achieving real and lasting peace, as real or perceived weakness is always a temptation to miscalculation and aggression. 
      With all of the quotes of Churchill this evening, I would at this point recall the words of George Washington, who in his First Annual Address to Congress, warned, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”  We seek peaceful means to resolve disputes and head off gathering threats, but as Frederick the Great said, “Diplomacy without arms is music without instruments.” 
      The goal must be to come together and take the steadfast and prudent steps now – political, economic, and, when appropriate, military – to shape the international environment and choices of other powers. We must try to prevent situations where we have only two bleak choices:  confrontation or capitulation, 1914 or 1938.
      This certainly is the case with Russia, but it applies to other security challenges such as Iran. One of those bleak choices would be presented by an extremist regime possessing nuclear weapons that could be used for blackmail or set off a regional arms race. The other scenario is a costly and potentially catastrophic military intervention – the last thing the Middle East needs. That is why it is so important for strong, sustained economic and political pressure to continue, to head off that nightmarish narrowing of choices. 
      The world is a rough and nasty place. Absent a change in human nature, it will remain so – despite our fondest hopes. As one of the great, if unsung, heroes of World War Two, Sir William Stephenson, wrote in his book, A Man Called Intrepid, “Perhaps a day will dawn when tyrants can no longer threaten the liberty of any people, when the functions of all nations, however varied their ideologies, will be to enhance life, not to control it. If such a condition is possible, it is in a future too far distant to foresee. Until that safer, better day, the democracies will avoid disaster, and possibly total destruction, only by maintaining their defenses.” 
      George Washington, a realist, would have agreed. And, I am confident, so would Winston Churchill.
      Thank you.