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Conference of the Defense Ministers of the Americas

As Prepared for Delivery by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Monday, November 22, 2010

Thank you, Minister Saavedra, for welcoming and hosting us here in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.  It is a real pleasure to be here with my fellow ministers in such a beautiful setting.  I know that a good deal of work went into preparing for this ministerial and I would like to extend my praise and appreciation to all involved, particularly the government of Bolivia.      

I would start today by restating what I said to this gathering in Banff two years ago:  that the security challenges we face in our hemisphere – natural and man-made disasters,  sophisticated and brutal criminal networks, illicit drugs, weapons and human trafficking – are  transnational threats that affect us all.  That is why I emphasized then, and I do so again today, that to successfully confront these challenges we must stand and work together as true partners. Indeed, the recent tragedy in Haiti taught us once again that the need for partnership and cooperation among the nations of the Americas is more urgent than ever.

The CDMA plays a vital role in fostering the kind of collaboration this hemisphere so desperately requires.  But to make this aspiration a reality, the CDMA must become more than a forum for dialogue alone.  It is time to act.

Fortunately, we have an opportunity over the next few days to make real progress.  We’ve taken an important first step by working closely together to craft a substantive and comprehensive agenda.  At this CDMA, many of the countries represented in this room collaborated on a regional proposal for consideration during the discussion on the theme “regional security and natural disasters:  strengthening hemispheric cooperation.”

The proposal is the product of extensive consultation and deliberation.  In September, 2010, two workshops were held – one in Washington, the other in Lima.  Those sessions included detailed input from many of our countries aimed at defining the key elements needed to improve cooperation on disaster relief.  Those discussions were aided by honest assessments of what worked and what didn’t in Haiti.  Such work is commendable because greater cooperation in this case can impact all of our citizens.  That is one reason why several ministers, in the past, including myself, stressed the need for a hemisphere-wide mechanism to more effectively channel disaster relief.

At this CDMA therefore, many of the nations represented in this room propose to:

  • Standardize a system for facilitating military collaboration during disaster relief operations through the adoption of a Military Assistance Collaboration Cell (MACC);
  • Adopt a common technology platform for information-sharing; and,
  • Establish working groups that will develop the framework for military support for civilian-led disaster relief operations. 

I wholeheartedly endorse this proposal and believe it is a promising blueprint for other cooperative efforts to further our mutual interests in concrete and beneficial ways.  I also believe the proposal’s working groups might provide a measure of continuity by facilitating collaboration in between our biennial ministerial gatherings.  Most importantly, this initiative will go far to help mitigate the human suffering that results from these tragedies.

Furthermore, I am pleased that the “consolidation of peace, trust, security, and cooperation in the Americas” is a major theme of the CDMA agenda.  Being more open about our nations’ intentions and capabilities can generate mutual trust throughout the hemisphere, which the U.S. considers to be an important national interest.

The United States places great value on transparency.  It is why our president disseminates a national security strategy, it is why the department of defense produces a quadrennial defense review, and it is why we partner so closely with the nations in the region.

We take the same approach to defense spending.  For example, in addition to submitting defense budget requests annually and publicly to our congress, each year the United States takes part in the United Nations instrument for reporting military expenditures.  This report covers military-related expenditures on training and operating costs, personnel costs, maintenance costs, procurement, construction, and research and development.  It is a comprehensive accounting of U.S. defense spending, and we are proud to be a participant. 

The United States will continue to support hemispheric efforts to foster transparency in defense spending in the hope that the nations of the Americas can serve as a model to the world on how to build mutual trust.  Therefore, I have directed my staff to work with the state department to re-evaluate the Inter-American Convention on Transparency in Conventional Weapons Acquisitions and determine the prospects for submitting it to our senate for ratification.  Although I make no guarantees, I hope this highlights our commitment to improving trust and transparency in our hemisphere.

Another important theme we will take up, “democracy, armed forces, security, and society,” offers an opportunity to examine how to strengthen civilian capacity in our defense ministries.  Civilian expertise in defense matters is crucial.  In fact, it is a critical prerequisite for civilian control of the military, itself a key component of true democracy.  

But greater civilian expertise requires more education, which is often lacking.  Therefore, I am pleased to announce that the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies (CHDS) has offered to host workshops for those interested in strengthening the civilian role in defense ministries. The center has also committed to providing each of you and your ministry two scholarships to its courses, which is exactly the type of exchange that fosters mutual understanding.

Fellow ministers, I call upon us all to concentrate on how we can strengthen the valuable institution that is the CDMA and use it for concrete good.  As a hemisphere, we are more tightly linked than ever; never before has our collective well-being depended so much on one another.  As Peru’s recent Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa once said, “one can't fight with oneself, for this battle has only one loser.”  

Let us aspire to work together as the community that we truly are.  Let us not lose sight of our shared dreams and common aspirations of a free, prosperous and secure Americas.  Thank you.

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