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U.S. Leadership Vital to International Stability
Prepared remarks of Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen , University of Maine, Orono, Maine, Friday, March 20, 1998

It is a pleasure to be here with you today. As someone who once taught here and was privileged to represent this university and this community for 24 years, I am honored and very grateful for the establishment of this lecture series.

As you know, when I retired from the Senate, I decided that my papers -- more than 1,500 boxes worth -- would come to the University of Maine because I believe that the product of a public career should go to a public institution. Foreign policy is not a subject that accelerates the heartbeat of the average citizen, but it is one that deserves far more attention than we have devoted to it in recent years. It is folly to think that domestic economic issues can be segregated from those involving foreign policy, or that our security can be defined by the geographic boundaries of the 50 states.

The world has experienced extraordinary change since I set out to make my way along life's twisting highways. The year I graduated from Bowdoin College and began law school, 1962, was perhaps the hottest point of the Cold War.

In October of that year, President [John F.] Kennedy went on television to address the nation, to warn us that the Soviet Union was assembling nuclear missiles in Cuba that were capable of hitting American cities. Tensions were running so high that the White House feared that his words alone might trigger a nuclear exchange. Before the president went on the air, American bombers laden with nuclear weapons left their runways. They swooped along the edges of Soviet airspace, waiting for a signal to strike.

Even now, it's chilling to consider how close we came to catastrophe. We seemed to come perilously close to the possibility Churchill sketched in his famous Iron Curtain speech, the possibility that "the Stone Age (would) return on the gleaming wings of science." For truly, the consequences of a nuclear exchange would have been apocalyptic in scale. And my generation would have become a mute artifact of mankind's animosities, dimly viewed through history's glass darkly.

Today, the world is no longer plunging toward Armageddon. Rather, nations are increasingly moving together, in formations of peace. Never has the flag of democracy waved over so many nations. Never have so many nations opened their markets, their borders and their minds to the rest of the world. Thanks to America leadership and aid, since the end of the Cold War the former Soviet republics have destroyed or dismantled more than 1,800 missiles and nearly 1,000 missile launchers and bombers, and they have deactivated roughly 4,000 warheads. And thanks to America's hard-earned goodwill and honest diplomacy, we are establishing more stability and stronger alliances in every region of the world.

But this progress should not produce smug satisfaction on America's part. No generation should mistake its passing success for permanent security. In 1799, more than two decades after the Declaration of Independence and just a few months before George Washington died, Thomas Jefferson wrote: "The generation which is going off the stage has deserved well of mankind for the struggles it has made and for having arrested that course of despotism which had overwhelmed the world for thousands and thousands of years. If there seems to be danger that the ground they have gained will be lost again, that danger comes from the (current) generation."

At the dawn of another new century, our generation faces a challenge just as profound, a danger of losing what we have gained in America and throughout the world. In part, this danger comes from the voices -- on both the left and the right -- who would have us isolate ourselves from the rest of the world, wrongly thinking our progress to be permanent.

What they fail to appreciate is that when America ignores the problems of the world, the world brings them back to our doorstep. And that the world we envision -- a world with more security, more democracy, more freedom and more respect for human rights -- is impossible without America's active leadership.

Indeed, the central lesson of this century is that America needs to be engaged. After the First World War, America declined to place its hand on the helm of history and retreated into a false security, and the world brought another war to our doorstep. After World War II, we chose to stay engaged in the world, responding to the superpower rivalry by crafting NATO, the Marshall Plan and a strategy of containment. That long twilight struggle through almost 50 winters of Cold War brought the Iron Curtain down and consigned communism to the ash heap of history.

When the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall was hacked and bulldozed down, many Americans believed that the age-old search for how best to organize human society had ended. In the eyes of one academician, Francis Fukuyama, history had come to a halt. Economic and political liberalism would sweep the globe as the new universal culture.

This led the South African [academician] Peter Val to say: "Rejoice my friends or weep in sorrow, what California is today, the world will be tomorrow."

Other scholars, such as the historian Samuel Huntington, warned that we should not confuse Europe with the world and predicted that we would face a "clash of civilizations," a world in which the lines of contact between Western, Orthodox, Islamic, Japanese and Confucian societies inevitably would produce economic or military conflict. It is a thesis that has stirred great debate and disagreement.

Whatever one's view of how international political developments will unfold, like it or not, we now live in a global village. Technology has miniaturized the world, reducing it to the size of a small ball spinning on the finger of science.

How China treats Hong Kong or Taiwan will have consequences for our own economy as well as those of our allies. Hostile action by Iraq, Iran or Syria in the Middle East can destabilize the financial architecture of the modern world. The proliferation of missile technology and weapons of mass destruction raises the specter of global chaos and nihilism.

In a world filled with great competition, complexity and confusion, one thing remains clear: The United States must resist the siren calls coming from the political left and right that it is time to "come home." The challenge for this generation is to hold up the lamplight of history so that we do not stumble on the footpath of the future. We must understand that the jobs of tomorrow, the security of tomorrow and the freedom of tomorrow all depend on America's engagement in a profoundly changed and ever-changing world.

Just over 150 years ago, when Samuel Morse sent the world's first long-distance telegraph transmission, he tapped out the message: "What hath God wrought?" Today, we have yet to come up with a definitive answer. But whenever we try to turn our backs, technology comes and taps us on the shoulder, holding a message of new opportunities but new dangers as well. As H.G. Wells said earlier this century, advances in technology have forced us into a "race between education and catastrophe."

We indeed live in a new world of danger, inhabited not only by traditional threats to our security, such as regional aggression and rogue regimes, but also by new threats, limited only by the boundaries of science and the imaginations of antagonists. We face ethnic conflicts, chemical and biological warfare, cyberwarfare, ecoterrorism, weapons in space and hi-tech global crime syndicates. Weapons such as sarin gas, VX, anthrax and other chemical and biological weapons are capable of transforming entire cities into cemeteries. And they are silent, virtually invisible killers.

A recitation of these dangers should not lead us to despair, but challenge our imagination, will power and character. They require us to see things more clearly and think about them with greater acuity, [and] to develop a comprehensive approach to their resolution. In short, to strategize.

America's strategy to confront these conventional and new challenges can be summed up in three words: shape, respond and prepare. First, we want to shape the security environment, to encourage more democracy in more nations, [and] more stability in more regions, and thus fewer threats to American interests and fewer risks to American soldiers and citizens. To do that, we must remain engaged in world affairs. Influencing our friends and foes requires that we be forward-deployed. So, we intend to maintain a robust presence in key regions of the world, including roughly 100,000 personnel forward-deployed in the Asia-Pacific region and another 100,000 in Europe.

But we also need strong, ready forces that can respond quickly and decisively to a full spectrum of crises, from noncombatant evacuations to small-scale crises to major conflicts. For that we need forces that are agile, flexible and responsive in a dynamic and uncertain world, forces that can quickly descend on and dominate any situation. We also need forces that can halt and defeat military aggression by major regional powers nearly simultaneously, such as the Korean Peninsula and Southwest Asia.

The military force structure we have today can meet our needs to shape and respond to the world from here to the horizon. But what about over the horizon, beyond the limits of our sight? What kind of armed forces will we need then? That leads to the toughest part of our strategy: preparing now for the future. We must bring about the Revolution in Military Affairs that builds the future force today. Twenty years ago, [author and futurist] Alvin Toffler warned, "Unless you tame technology, you will encounter future shock."

Today we are harnessing technology for our defenses so that it is our opponents who suffer "future shock," while we gain "future security." I saw this future when I went to Fort Irwin in California to see the Army's Force XXI experiments, which apply the power of the microchip technology to modern warfare. I saw soldiers with satellite navigation sets in their backpacks. I saw M-16 rifles equipped with thermal sensors, laser rangefinders and image intensifiers. I saw Humvees with computer screens bolted to the dashboards, showing troop locations across an area the size of Rhode Island. And they were all linked by a clear, integrated information system that gives them near-total battlefield awareness, cutting through the fog of war.

Our job is to see that these three elements -- shape, respond, prepare -- are also integrated and interlocking. If we do that well, we will see more of the synergy between our security efforts and our efforts to promote prosperity. When our diplomats and military forces combine to help create stability, that stability and security attracts investment. Investment generates prosperity. And prosperity strengthens democracy, which in turn creates more stability and security. So in every region of the global economy -- Europe, the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific, Latin America and Africa -- we not only have greater interests, but our interests are symbiotic.

In Europe, the United States and NATO are reaching out to the continent's new democracies with a hand of help and hope. Congress is now debating the admission of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic into NATO. This decision, if favorable, will go down in history as a courageous vote of confidence in the promise of stability and democracy throughout the European continent. I commend the Congress and Sen. [Olympia] Snowe and Sen. [Susan] Collins for the deliberative and thoughtful way in which they are examining this momentous move. NATO's decision to enlarge has revitalized the alliance and unleashed a powerful dynamic that is rapidly erasing the continent's old dividing lines.

I witnessed this when I traveled to Ukraine right after the Madrid summit last summer to attend a Partnership for Peace exercise involving forces from the United States, Ukraine and nine other former Warsaw Pact nations. It was a truly inspiring sight, as nations that once trained to go to war against each other trained together in the cause of peace.

NATO is also reaching out to Russia and Ukraine in a spirit of friendship and hope. The Founding Act with Russia, signed in May, and the NATO-Ukraine Charter, signed in July, will set NATO on a future course of consultation and cooperation with these two great European nations.

Nowhere is NATO's renewed strength and vitality more evident than in Bosnia. On my visits to Bosnia, I have seen the tremendous transformation that is taking place. Soldiers from America and Russia working side by side toward a common goal -- once an unthinkable site. Where only a year ago the hatemongers in Pale instilled fear, a new common flag now flies over Bosnia's government buildings. Where there was poverty, disarray and stagnation, I have seen houses and businesses being rebuilt, farmers returning to their fields and a common currency will soon be in use.

New leaders like Bosnian Serb Miorand Dodik give hope that all Bosnians can work together toward their common goals of stability, security and prosperity. So Bosnia is headed in the right direction, and we are right to stay there as a stabilizing presence, ensuring that a durable structure for peace is cemented. The people of the United States -- along with the presence of NATO -- deserve the credit for stopping the bloodshed and carnage, sending the hatemongers into retreat and beginning the process of reconciliation.

Nowhere are the challenges of peace and stability more pressing than in the Middle East. The continuing concern over [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction is a stark reminder: Only through America's commitment to that region can we protect and promote our security interests there. Diplomacy backed by the threat of massive force helped convince Saddam Hussein to give the United Nations inspectors the access they need to detect and destroy his weapons of mass destruction.

Our forces remain in the gulf to continue to back up diplomacy with force, keeping the pressure on Saddam to keep his word as inspectors resume their work and the world learns whether he intends to turn commitments into compliance. And these forces -- along with those of some 25 nations -- are ready to take swift and substantial action if Saddam attempts to again flout his obligations.

In the Asia-Pacific region, America's engagement continues to be a stabilizing influence for both prosperity and democracy. We are a strong, common thread among the national economies and multilateral institutions that are interwoven in the region. Our forces, forward-deployed in the region, combined with solid alliances with nations such as Japan and the Republic of Korea, have kept historic memories and animosities at bay and allowed those nations to become economic powerhouses.

The stability borne of our engagement has permitted the nations of Southeast Asia to grow peacefully into our third largest overseas market. John Hay [U.S. secretary of state, 1898-1905] once said that the Mediterranean is the ocean of the past, the Atlantic is the ocean of the present and the Pacific is the ocean of the future. And while the economies of some of the Asian nations are in flux, I believe that in the next century, many of the jobs and much of the direct investment in the United States will rely on Asia-Pacific economic growth.

More of the environmental and humanitarian issues we face will the require cooperation of Asia-Pacific nations. And more of the products we sell and consume will have ties to the region. Most of you can probably guess that Canada is Maine's largest export market. But which country is No. 2? If you call the Maine International Trade Center, you will find that the answer is Malaysia. And Singapore is No. 3.

So whether your primary interest is national security, your own standard of living or simply living safely in the global environment, a forward-looking relationship with Asia-Pacific nations is critical. That is the rationale -- a convincing rationale, I believe -- for our engagement in the region, particularly as many of those nations weather their current economic difficulties.

China, with its burgeoning economy, has also benefited from the decades of regional stability provided by America's presence in the region. China is no longer an emerging power in the region. It is a power, and rightfully so. The United States does not fear this, nor do we view China as an adversary. Rather, we seek to encourage China to step forward as a responsible and cooperative great nation -- unique in its identity, but more open on security issues and respectful of international law.

The summit last year between Presidents Clinton and Jiang Zemin gave great hope that our two nations can cooperate more on issues of stability, security and prosperity. A key factor in this equation, of course, is sustaining the consensus for far-sighted economic policies that support growth, stability and trade, such as MFN [most-favored nation] status for China. If we are able to sustain a regional policy of engagement that combines candor and cooperation with vision and patience, both America and the Asia-Pacific will benefit.

Of course, vision and patience are often scarce commodities in a democracy -- especially in the absence of a direct threat to our security. But as we close out what Time magazine founder Henry Luce dubbed "the American Century," vision and patience are traits we sorely need, especially if we are to lead the world into the next century.

Before the Second World War, Henry Luce's wife -- the reporter and later Congresswoman and Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce -- wrote that America faced three roads: The first was the Road for Victims, those who became victims because they closed their eyes and turned their backs to evil, seeking isolation from the world. The second was the Road of Accommodation, a road taken by opportunists and appeasers who, in the face of danger, opted for peace at any price. The third was the Road of Liberty and Justice For All, a hard, narrow and straight road that was chosen by few. But, Luce noted, this was the best road to take -- even if it was dangerous in places.

Luce's words echo down through the ages to us, for the hard choices America faces throughout the world test not only the wisdom our leaders, but the will our people. We must state clearly: In an age when words circle the globe at the speed of light, [and] when e-mail reaches our troops in Bosnia as easily it reaches your friends in Boston, the United States will not isolate itself and blindly ignore the world's problems.

It may be chauvinistically satisfying to demand that the United States depart the Pacific and leave the Asians to resolve their territorial or geopolitical differences, or to let France and Germany undertake to stabilize Eastern Europe on their own. But we should not permit winged rhetoric to obscure history or logic. America has no choice but to remain deeply involved in foreign affairs with diplomats and gunboats alike. We do not have to become the world's policeman.

It is equally imperative, however, that we never allow ourselves to become a prisoner of world events. It is palpable nonsense to think that we can simply walk away from the world and return to the protective cocoon of the continental United States. The poet W.H. Auden reminded us that we "all sway forward on the dangerous flood of history, which never sleeps or dies and, held one moment, burns the hand." America's hands need not be burned again to realize that the world is never going to walk away from us.

Joshua Chamberlain, one of Maine's greatest statesmen, once wrote: "We know not the future and cannot plan for it much (but) we can determine and know what manner of men we will be whenever and wherever the hour strikes that calls us to noble action."

You cannot know today when the hour will strike or what the challenges for your generation will be. But you can determine to meet challenges with both nobility and enlightened self-interest, understanding that no person or nation can be an island. To preserve our rights here, we must regard the world beyond our shores with a sense of personal responsibility, an assumption of reciprocity and an enduring pledge of personal resolve.

Winston Churchill once hosted a dinner for the journalist Stuart Alsop. After dinner, having indulged in some champagne and a touch of brandy, Churchill said, "America. America. [It's] a great and [strong] country, like a [work]horse, pulling the rest of the world [up] out of the slough of despond [and despair]" towards peace and prosperity. Then he fixed his cold blue eyes on Alsop accusingly, and asked: "But will America stay the course?"

Nearly 50 years later, we can answer his question. America has stayed the course because that is our responsibility. We will stay the course, because that is our destiny.


Published by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission.