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Pivotal Moment: A World in the Grips of Revolutionary Change
Remarks as delivered by Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, USA, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Town Hall of California, Los Angeles, Thursday, May 11, 1995

Let me begin by telling all of you how very honored I am that you would ask me to come here today and share some views with you. As you know, this year we are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Starting with last summer's D-Day celebrations at Normandy, I have had an opportunity to attend a number of these World War II commemorations in the U.S. and overseas.

As you might imagine, these are immensely inspiring events. But at each one of these commemorations, unquestionably the greatest sights are the veterans who fought the battles and campaigns of that war so very long ago. They were remarkable men and women, ... not only because they won that war, but perhaps just as importantly, because after that war they worked so very hard to create a better world, to exploit the opportunities their sacrifices created for all of us.

President [Bill] Clinton perhaps said it best when he spoke to the veterans at Normandy. He told them that we were the children of their sacrifices and of their struggles. He told them that because of them, in our lives we have known nothing but freedom and liberty and that we shall never forget and that we shall forever be grateful.

And, of course, this makes me wonder what our children will think when they look back 50 years from today, when they look back to see what we created for them. ... What great events will they look back on half a century from now? What will they be thankful for?

Now I have no doubt that they will, in fact, look back at this time in history because we are now in one of those pivotal moments that occur only once every few generations when the world is in the grips of revolutionary change. This really is what the end of the Cold War created -- a time of vast challenges and of vast opportunities, one that rivals in every way what the end of World War II had created.

And we must wonder: What will be on the minds of these young people when they look back on us? What will they see as our Marshall Plan, a plan that for all of the controversy that it evoked at the beginning we now recognize was a brilliant vision and a great effort, one that pulled an entire continent out of the ashes of a terrible war and that gave hope and freedom and prosperity to hundreds of millions of people around Europe? And it created for future generations powerful democratic allies without whom we could not have won the Cold War.

Or what will they see perhaps as our Yalta, where, because of wrong choices, we could leave them instead problems and conflicts that could bedevil their lives and perhaps the lives of their children?

Right now ... thousands of our men and women in uniform are deployed around the world on actual operations. They operate over northern and southern Iraq, in and around Bosnia, in Macedonia and Croatia, in the streets and alleys of Haiti, and along the border of Peru and Ecuador. Even as we are still negotiating the nuclear issues with North Korea, our forces are staring across the DMZ [demilitarized zone] at a million-man army, one that is clearly equipped and positioned for attack, not to defend.

On the other part of the world, Iran is building up its military capability and has recently begun to fortify its ability to block international shipping into the [Persian] Gulf. And as all of you know, these are only some of the world's trouble spots. There are the conflicts around the periphery of the former Soviet Union, and within Russia itself, of course, there is Chechnya. Turkey is fighting the Kurdish PKK [insurgent Kurdistan Workers' Party], Algeria is caught in a terrible civil war, and several nations in Africa face the risk of imploding into the same kind of tragedy as we witnessed not long ago in Rwanda.

Who could have predicted that the world would be like this when back in 1990 and 1991 we were flushed with the crumbling of the [Berlin] Wall, and of [Russian President] Boris Yeltsin climbing on that tank, and with that single act bringing to an end an empire that had lasted for three quarters of a century? And that in itself is a warning to us all, not to confuse what we hope will happen with the realities of what could happen, and often without any warning.

This explosion of conflicts and tragedies has led to the debates that we are now seeing in places like Washington, D.C.: debates about Somalia, about Haiti, about expanding NATO, about the need for a national missile defense and about so many other vital issues. And certainly I don't pretend to have all the answers to these very difficult questions, but I would offer one suggestion, and that is that we must learn to take the long view. We must understand what the main events are. We must not let ourselves become trapped in the events of the moment without understanding their relevance to the future. As we make our decisions today, always we must think about tomorrow and "how do today's decisions affect our tomorrow?"

In that regard, I will tell you that, first and foremost, this means that we must maintain our international leadership. This, after all, is what the generation that fought World War II gained for us and in the past 50 years we have used our leadership to extraordinary benefit for our nation, for the welfare and prosperity of our people and for billions of others like them around the world.

Looking backward, I think it would be obvious to us all that there is no other nation that would have -- or that could have -- produced the results that we created. No other nation could have produced GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] or the Bretton-Woods agreement and then turned these visions into reality.

No other nation could have successfully led the West through the Cold War. No other nation but ours could have successfully engineered and built the United Nations. No other nation could have built NATO. All of this we can see clearly. But what we see less clearly is what our leadership could mean for our future.

Nor are we very clear what it means to lead in a world that is not divided into two camps, a world where the focus of international leadership is much more opaque and where the kinds of problems that a leading nation must address are far less focused, are far more ambiguous and messy than what we experienced during this last half century.

Very rarely, for example, did we ever become involved in such things as peacekeeping, or in operations other than war, if we even understand that term. Our consuming purpose was to deter the former Soviet Union and if deterrence failed, to fight and win that one big war. Smaller problems were simply left for others to handle.

As well, it has become more difficult and more frustrating to lead in an international environment where neither we nor our allies are pressed by the kind of urgencies and stakes that the Cold War kept over our heads for so many years. And this has not been helped by the fact that many of the challenges that we face simply are not built for black-and-white, clear-cut solutions. What do you do about a Bosnia, where passions that are centuries old smother any form of reason?

And how to handle a Russia that, even while it is careening through reforms and problems that are vital to all of our futures, can suddenly turn with such force on its own citizens? And how do you expand NATO without again dividing Europe and in the process, perhaps isolating and adding to the insecurities of those who are not immediately included? These are very difficult questions for us all. And the more you look at these questions, the more reasonable it becomes that we might differ in our views.

But as we have learned from our experience of the past half century, you cannot be the world's leader by only talking about the things you are unwilling to do. Ultimately, our unequaled national power will always ensure that we have a seat at the table. But staying at the head of that table means that we must stay involved in the world's most truculent problems and that we commit ourselves to their solutions.

This raises the second thing we must do, and that is to be selective. With all of the conflicts and tragedies that I described earlier, we need to recognize that some of these are critically important to our interests and to our futures, and others are less so. And as the world's most influential nation, the problems that most require our sustained attention and commitments are those that have global impact or that will shape the futures of regions where we have, in fact, important interests.

And so although North Korea is a very serious near-term threat and South Korea is an important ally that we must help defend, we also need to recognize that North Korea will not be the moving force that shapes the future of that part of Asia. It is an isolated nation with a disproven system that no nation in the world wants to emulate. Rather, I submit to you, it is Beijing and Tokyo that are propelling that region's future; it is in those capitals where we must sustain and enlarge our influence.

The same is true in Europe, whose future is being molded in Bonn, Moscow and Kiev, not in the bloodstained mountains and cities of what used to be known as Yugoslavia. For all that, we cannot ignore what is happening in that conflict or allow it to expand beyond its current borders, and we also cannot afford to allow it to undermine what we must do on that continent that is so much more vital to our long-term interests.

We cannot allow it to unravel NATO for, despite the debates you see about this alliance today, maintaining the vitality and the coherence of our trans-Atlantic partnership is vital to our future. Certainly we as part of NATO must be prepared to participate in the withdrawal of U.N. forces from former Yugoslavia if it becomes necessary to do so and should we be asked to do so.

We must not allow that conflict to destroy either the confidence or the trust that we and our NATO allies have shared through so many dangerous trials. If we allow this to happen, if we allow NATO to be marginalized or damaged, then we will have compounded a tragedy with an unforgivable blunder.

And in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, we are finally seeing the fruits of what for so long we tried to bring about -- the hope of peace between Israel and its neighbors. We must not forget just how very crucial this is to our future or how very dangerous the conflicts in that region were to our past. And while we must preserve our guard against Iraq -- as Saddam Hussein reminded us last fall -- we must also recognize that the growing danger in that region of the world is Iran.

And in this hemisphere we must grasp the opportunities now before us. Today, democratic institutions and market economies are at a historic high. And this offers us -- at last -- the chance that has been sought for two centuries: to build within this hemisphere a zone of peace and prosperity and mutual cooperation. It is these challenges and these opportunities that will shape the world that our children will inherit. Those of you involved in international business know very well that economically the world today is multipolar. The time is long past when the dollar alone could propel the global economy out of a slump. To create that kind of a force today would take, at the very least, the combined efforts of the dollar, of the yen and of the German mark. And this same multipolarity is spreading to diplomacy and security. I suggest it will be a feature of the security order of the coming century. What this order will look like, and how stable it will be, depends very much on what we do today.

Finally, the third thing we must do is to protect the unequaled excellence of our armed forces -- the ultimate protector of our interests and of our way of life -- both because we are using our forces more frequently today and because I am convinced that what we are seeing will be, most likely, the wave of the future.

Look, in the past year alone, we dispatched our forces to be prepared to fight on at least two occasions. First, to Haiti when, just as our last-ditch diplomatic effort had stalled and seemed on the verge of failure, we launched an invasion. Fortunately, once Haiti's military rulers learned that our forces were actually in the air, an agreement was hastily reached and the invasion was turned into an unopposed landing.

And only three weeks later, last October, after we detected Saddam Hussein's divisions bolting south to Kuwait, again we dispatched a force with orders to fight. And once the first of our forces began arriving, we watched Saddam's divisions change their minds and return to their garrisons.

In the same year, by the way, in Korea, the tensions over the nuclear issue grew so severe that they could only be viewed as edging toward conflict. And so we reinforced that peninsula and prepared ourselves for a military clash.

So, if you recall last year and these events that I just mentioned, it becomes clearer why it is necessary that we maintain the ability to fight and win two nearly simultaneous regional conflicts. After all, at several points in the past year, we were very close to just such a scenario.

And I believe that we now have a consensus on that issue. But what I worry about is our ability to maintain all of the parts of this force that must be sustained. We have, I believe, strong political support to protect our near-term readiness, the training and maintenance and preparedness to respond to today's challenges.

And I think there is also a firm appreciation that the backbone of our military excellence -- our people -- must be protected; their pay and their quality of life must be protected, or we will find it increasingly difficult to retain them or to attract more like them. But I am not nearly as confident that there is as much support for our long-term readiness -- modernizing our force where necessary, and just replacing the many items of equipment as they grow old and simply wear out.

By 1999, our force will be over one-third smaller than it was in 1991 when the gulf war ended. And our budget will have shrunk by over 40 percent in real terms from what it was in 1988. In fact, our budgets have now been declining for ten straight years.

If you add this up, an awful lot of swords have been pounded into plowshares and an awful lot of great soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have been asked to leave the military -- nearly 700,000.

But I think that we have reached the point where we must stop looking backward -- trying to judge whether we have cut enough from the past -- and instead turn our eyes to the future to decide whether we are building the best possible force to protect interests in a new century, with all the new challenges that century offers. We must make this turn very quickly, because that future is just around the corner. And we have learned to stop thinking about peace dividends as well, because what we are witnessing in so many corners of the world bears very little resemblance to the peace we had hoped for.

If you return to the question of what we want our children to think when they look back in 50 years -- at what we did with the opportunities and the challenges that grew out of the end of the Cold War, their judgments will weigh on how well we kept our focus on the future.

Did we preserve our global leadership and use it productively and wisely? Did we understand what was truly important to the future, expending our energies where it was important? Did we preserve our military strength, avoiding the mistake that our nation made so many times in our own past, after both world wars, after Korea and after Vietnam, where each time our hunger for peace dividends outweighed our cautions and left us poorly prepared for future conflicts? If we do these things I just mentioned, I think we have every reason to be confident about our future.

After all, we are in fact today the dominant, leading nation in the world. It is probably the first time in modern history that a leading nation has been challenged so little by another power as we are today.

And as the last 50 years have shown, we do have the wisdom and the skill and a vast capacity to do good. From where I stand, the glass is a lot more than just half empty. ...

Thank you very much.


Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant to the 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. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at