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Remarks on Receiving the Distinguished Service Award from the Center for the National Interest

Thank you.  Thank you all.

Dov, thank you.  And you, too, represent to me a spirit above Washington and above partisanship in defense.  And we've been colleagues for a long time, and I really appreciate that. 

What a fantastic evening.  I've known this Center and its chairman Chuck Boyd, for a long, long time.  And I'm proud to receive an award that was previously given to Bob Gates, Bill Cohen, among others.  The Center’s a unique and vital force in our foreign policy debate.  And now I suppose I can say it is foresighted, or maybe optimistic.  After all, you're giving me a Distinguished Service Award after less than four months on the job.  I appreciate the recognition, the vote of confidence.

I see so many familiar faces here tonight, and I'm especially pleased that two old friends are here to present the award.  One is Graham Allison, who is a national treasure.  Through his writing, his sage advice, he's helped generations of public servants, including me, not to mention generations of students who have found their way into governments here and around the world.  The nation owes him a debt of gratitude, and I owe him many thanks for his years of friendship and counsel.  And Zal Khalilzad.  One of the finest diplomats of our time.  Thank you both for being here and all of you this evening.

Mike?  Where's Mike?  Mike also.  I've known Mike for a long time as well, and as I'll say shortly, the greatest thing about the U.S. military, the finest fighting force the world has ever known, is its people.  But second comes the technology that it marshals.  And I always have to remind people, we don't make any of that in the Pentagon.  Nothing is made there.  Our system, unlike the Soviet system, is one where we buy from companies that are subject to all the other pressures of companies that have to live in competitive capital markets and so forth, and that is the great strength of our country.  And we can't ever forget that they’re our partners in this enterprise.  And Mike, L-3 represents that to me, and I thank you.

And I also want to thank Susan, though she had to depart early, for her very, very kind words.  Susan handles the toughest job in Washington, maybe the world, with remarkable intelligence, tenacity, grace. In helping President Obama make hard choices and ensuring his decisions are carried out with the Defense Department's expected excellence, I spend a lot of time with Susan.  I'm better off for it, just as the country is better off for her years of service. 

I'm going to be very brief.  It's late in the evening, and I'm actually going to depart a little bit from what I have here, so you're going to forgive me if I adlib a little bit.  I'll be very, very brief. 

And the first thing I wanted to say is that the United States is – and I’m offering my own opinions now –  is in much better shape than many will admit.  This may be controversial in a body of realists…and maybe a little surprising coming from a Secretary of Defense, but I am incredibly optimistic about America's position in the world today.

We do face challenges – the issues that keep the editors of the National Interest plenty busy.  North Korea continues to provoke.  ISIL's barbarism outrages the world.  Russia’s aggressive actions have upset more than two decades of peace and stability in Europe.  In Asia, disputes over rocks and shoals are complicated by evolving power dynamics as several regional powers rise.  And terrorism, foreign fighters, cyber attacks, and other ills threaten lives and the security of many around the world, including the United States.

But I'm optimistic, because we confront these challenges with remarkable, unparalleled strengths.  Following the worst recession since the Great Depression, our economy is making great gains.  Progress will continue because of America's dynamic and innovative businesses, world-class universities, and the domestic energy revolution now underway.  And our military, long as I said, the finest fighting force the world has ever known, has unmatched operational edge and unrivaled capabilities.  No other military has the kind of skill and agility backed by experience that ours does.

When the President nominated me in the Roosevelt Room in December, I said that I would both try to ensure that we defended the country and our friends and allies, and to help grab hold for our country of the many bright opportunities before us.  An important opportunity for America right now is to ensure, for example, that our children can achieve the American dream by leveraging all of our strengths to seize a strong place of comparative advantage in the burgeoning markets represented by an exploding global middle class.  And this was, in fact, the opportunity that I was working on in a totally different life before the President nominated me.

And, as I've been reminded in my travels since returning to government, our strengths are multiplied by an unrivaled network of allies and partners –  from Japan, Korea, Australia, India, and others in the Asia-Pacific, to our NATO alliance in Europe, to our global coalition against ISIL and other close partnerships in the Middle East. 

We have these strong and deepening relationships for several reasons.  First, nobody's more capable, as I said – we have unparalleled people, technology, training, and experience.  Second, our antagonists and competitors push many states towards us – giving us so many friends and partners, and leaving countries like China and Russia, not to mention North Korea, to stand largely alone.   And third, nations seek our friendship not because of our power alone, but because of the gravitational pull of our country's ideals and values and good will.

Our unrivaled advantages and our global network of friends are what make America's global strength unique…both today and throughout its history.  But we have to maintain perspective – looking upon the whole world, being clear-eyed about the strengths and vulnerabilities, and avoiding the complacency that has overtaken so many established powers throughout history.  We must not allow that to happen. 

Strategy now, as in the past, is about perspective.  Keeping perspective means keeping all the world in synoptic view.  It also means knowing which mix of foreign policy tools is best for a given situation.  It means understanding where our challenges today fall in the context of history…and how we can use history's lessons to pursue today's opportunities.  And it means appreciating that preventing the development of serious dangers is a more efficient and effective way…when that's possible, of protecting ourselves, than confronting them later.

Too many tend to forget this last point, but by standing strong today – with diplomacy, economic tools and our military – we can forestall worse problems down the road.  That's an approach that served the United States well enough 70 years ago in the aftermath of World War II, and that's the approach that Bill Perry and I termed "preventive defense" years back in a book we wrote when we left government service 20 years ago.

Preventive defense, like preventive medicine, meant averting dangerous developments before they require drastic remedies.  But just as preventive medicine does not ensure perfect health, preventive defense is not a guarantee of American security.  What it can do is appreciate the uncertainty inherent in the international system and help us pursue balance – between interests and principles, between excellence and action, and prudence and restraint, and between today's security and the future's threats.

President Obama, Susan Rice, and I are working together to ensure the United States tries to strike that balance.  And in so doing, we're pursuing a foreign policy that puts our interests first in a way that also always keeps us mindful of our principles.  Take a few of the items that we're working on – here I'm going to adlib a little bit – if you don't mind.

First of all, I came back from the Asia-Pacific a few days ago – Stephanie and I were there for about two weeks – and there we're protecting our country, and our allies and our partners, and supporting a regional security architecture built on a foundation of rules and norms that has helped so many in the region to rise and prosper.

Regardless of what was going on at home or in other parts of the world – for decade upon decade, during Democratic and Republican presidencies, in time of surplus and deficit, war and peace – it is the United States that has helped maintain stability and the resulting prosperity in the Asia-Pacific uninterruptedly for seven decades.

Our rebalance, so-called, to the region, is simply about making sure we always will.  Last month in Singapore, I encouraged our regional allies and partners to come together and strengthen that security architecture, understanding that it is critical to the region where half of humanity's population resides and half of its economic livelihood takes place.

In the Middle East, we're taking a balanced approach there as well in our campaign against ISIL.  We strike from the air, while on the ground we're advising and assisting the Iraqi Security Forces, because we know that only they can secure their country in the long run, because their leadership is the only path to ISIL's lasting defeat.  Throughout this campaign, we're trying to take great care to protect the lives of fellow human beings – in stark contrast to our enemy – and alongside a global coalition of allies and partners who are working by, with, and through the government of Iraq, because we believe that a multi-sectarian Iraq, while in fact difficult to preserve, is better than the alternatives.  And as I said, long-term stability depends upon on governance on the ground. 

Europe – we're defending our interests and our values in Europe as well – standing with those eager to keep moving forward and against those who would turn back the clock. 

The Kremlin and Vladimir Putin are challenging NATO, the United States, and the international order.  But this past year has demonstrated once again the solidarity of NATO and its partners in Europe…and only a few years after some questioned the relevance of the transatlantic alliance. NATO has been reenergized, and we're doing a great deal together, including exercises, joint training, and capability enhancement.  That reflects the security situation, but also the principles that have helped so many on the continent move forward ‘til [since] the end of the Cold War…principles Putin has rejected to the frustration of Russia's people and its economy – at least in the long run – principles we and our allies will continue to protect.

We seek this balanced approach in cyberspace as well, where Americans in uniform not only protect the battle networks and weapons our military relies on – they also help defend the nation, its critical infrastructure, and guard the freedom and openness of the Internet that has fostered revolutions in our economy and culture.  And in a challenging cybersecurity environment  – as demonstrated by the recent attack on the Office of Personnel Management – the new cyber strategy I released in April will help the Defense Department continue to stand with those who use the Internet to create, develop, and innovate, and against those who seek to steal, destroy, and exploit.

In our work in the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, Europe, and cyberspace, you can see the value of, to use our phrase from years ago, preventive defense.  But we also can appreciate the need to defend our interests while we promote our values. 

Security is the foundation of our society and everyone's society…without security – my co-colleague Joe Nye always says, security is like oxygen.  If you have it, you pay no attention to it, and if you don't have it, you think of nothing else.  And our job is to make sure that people get to be thinking of other things, that they're living their lives, raising their children, dreaming their dreams without having to worry about their basic security.  That's the mission that we have in the Department.

Every once in a while, I get morose because I feel like sometimes the mission of the wonderful people that it is my privilege to lead isn't adequately appreciated every day by the citizens who benefit from it so much.  And I get frustrated by that.  And I try to console myself with the following thought. 

I say to myself, "Ash, you know, think about it this way: that means you're doing a good job."  Because if they wake up every morning and are able to take for granted the fact that they can conduct their lives in safety and security, that's what we're supposed to be doing.  The paradox of that is sometimes they fail to support us to the extent that they should.  So at least that's how I console myself.

Dov mentioned my commitments that I made when I came into this job, and I wanted to say something about them also. 

The first, and you may have inferred this from what has been said so far, and this is true of me and Stephanie both, is to our people, our wonderful people.  That's what makes us the best in the world. And I don't take them for granted.  We – they need to be cared for, they need to be treasured.  They need to have their dignity and respect upheld.  And above all, when we do anything that puts them in jeopardy, we have to do that with the greatest care and deliberation.

My second commitment was to this country – to the President to help him solve the terrible challenges that afflict our world and our country, and to give him my best and most candid advice, and also to ensure that he receives the most candid professional military advice, and to make sure that our great Department carries out those decisions with what is now an accustomed expectation of excellence. 

And then the third thing, the third commitment I said, was to the future, and that's what touches upon what Dov said.  And if I leave something behind when I'm done with this job, this is what, if I achieve it, I'll be proudest of, and that is to help lead our institution into the future. 

To embrace the future, we have to be open to change.  And we're a fantastic institution of more than 200 years of age, lives on tradition, lives on honor, lives on grounded human values.  But we need to change in order to stay the best.

And the only way to change in today's world is to be open, so I'm constantly trying to open us up –open us up to new ideas, open us up to new thinking, and make sure that we're the most aware institution in our society.  And I'll give you a couple examples of that. 

One is as it regards people.  I am very intent upon making sure that 20 years from now and 40 years, the quality of the people that we have become accustomed to having in our military service is the same in those decades to come as it is now.  And that's not something you can take for granted.  Labor markets change, generations change.  If you have children, as Stephanie and I do, you know that they think differently about their lives than we did.  They think differently about their careers.  They think about moving around, moving in and out of institutions.  Moving around to move up.  They want a particular kind of challenge.  They want mobility.  They want different things than we wanted.  And we need to continue to offer them as a military institution in order to continue to attract the very best in our society. 

Likewise, technology.  We need to be open to non-traditional sources of technology.  Now, Mike's industry is a traditional source of technology, but I mean within our traditional defense industry, they're reaching out also as we are trying to do to the broad technology base that now characterizes our role.

When I started out in this business, everything of consequence that happened in the world of technology happened in America.  And most of that happened in defense, or at least government precincts.  Those things are no longer true.  It's a fact.  And so if we're going to stay the very best, we need to reach out and be open. 

So in all these ways and many more, I think that my commitment to the future requires us to be committed to change, and change requires an openness, an openness to ideas.  And so you'll see me trying to stretch us and connect us to things, and that's – it's my effort to make sure that in – that my successor's successor's successor's successor inherits an institution as fine as – as fine as the one it is my privilege to lead now.

I owe that to them in the future, and that's my third commitment.  So if you see me doing what I'm doing and you're trying to – wondering what Ash is up to, those are the things that are going on in my mind. 

Closing, it's a privilege to be with you.  So many old friends, so many people who represent –Brent's here, the great, great traditions of continuity and continuity of vision, a continuity of working out things among different points of view that represents the great strength of our country. 

That's the foundation that I get to rest upon now.  I don't take it for granted.  I'm very grateful.  And I'll try to do you proud in the times ahead.  I know you bet on me…coming here…by giving me this award.  I'm very pleased.  I'm flattered.  I'm grateful.  I'll try to do you proud.  Thank you.