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Remarks on Receiving the Woodrow Wilson Award

Good evening.

Thank you, Jane, for that incredible introduction, this award, for hosting Stephanie and me – and all of us – on this wonderful evening. More on you in a moment, Jane.

That video tribute – that’s a real honor, and I appreciate it. So is receiving an award that puts me in, I understand, the esteemed company of both Henry Kissinger and Wayne Newton. Now that would be a Vegas act for the ages. Seriously, I don’t know who’s had a longer or more distinguished career – Henry or Wayne – but I aspire to their staying power. And I appreciate Henry doing that.

Of course, more than any video or award, I’m pleased to spend an evening with so many great, dear friends.

Wes, Dennis, I appreciate your kind words. But even more, on behalf of everyone at the Defense Department, thank you. I’ve said it many times before, but for decades the Department and your companies have worked together on our American national security team. I always tell people we don’t make anything at the Pentagon. The Soviet Union tried that and it didn’t work out very well. We have a different system: Northrup Grumman and Boeing are part of our strength.

So, thank you.

So is the Wilson Center. I want to thank everyone at the Wilson Center for the important work you do. Some in Washington forget that the Wilson Center is the official memorial to our 24th President. And what better way to honor our foremost scholar-president – the only one ever with a PhD – than a center dedicated to connecting policymakers with, as they say here, “actionable ideas.”

There is no better leader for this Center than my long-time friend Jane Harman. Jane of course served for almost two decades in Congress where she was a leader on intelligence and defense and homeland security matters. She’s a fierce advocate for the Wilson Center, its scholars, its principles, and its actionable ideas.

Stephanie can attest to this, but when we’re flipping through the channels, we’ll see Jane, occasionally, on TV, and we’ll stop for Jane, and every time…I tell you this…every time…we find her saying something infallibly sensible, infallibly wise, which is such a rarity. And Stephanie and I will turn to each other and say, “That makes perfect sense.” But its part of what makes Jane so special, and why she’s a leader in defense and national security policy – and a member, I might note – proudly, appreciatively – of the Defense Policy Board. She’s basically an advisor to everybody.

Thank you, Jane, for making all of us smarter…and thank you for your friendship, and your continued service to our country.

Few appreciated more than Woodrow Wilson, how hard it was to put actionable ideas into action. He wanted the world to be made, quote “fit and safe to live in.” Some of Wilson’s grandest plans were blocked abroad and at home. But his ideas have endured.

They inspired the World War II generation to not only fight to make the world safe for democracy, but to build a post-war architecture that promoted the ideas Wilson proposed. They inspired Western leaders throughout the Cold War, as they confronted a global adversary intent on autocracy and autarky. They inspired the post-Cold War leaders, who sought a multi-lateral international order to bring East and West together again.

And they continue to inspire President Obama and many others today. Of course, in the century since Wilson espoused them, these ideas have proved their practical value in security and prosperity gains for the United States and others around the world. That’s why, to take just a few examples, we stand up for freedom of the seas around the world, whether in the South China Sea or the Persian Gulf or the Arctic. That’s why we’re gathering momentum to defeat ISIL’s barbarism in the Middle East. That’s why we are working to pass the Trans Pacific Partnership, one of the largest trade agreements in history – and one of strategic importance – and a similar Transatlantic pact.

And that’s why, every day, the men and women of the Defense Department, in uniform and civilian, put their lives on the line to defend American interests and the American-led international order that serves those interests so well. Our service members work, as Wilson said, “bring peace and safety to all nations.”

Unfortunately, more and more, some in the world are intent on eroding those values. Today, the rules-based international order faces challenges from Russia, and, in a very different way, China. None of these actors can overturn it completely, but they are intent on undermining some its values and undercutting some of its effectiveness. And of course terrorists like ISIL stand entirely against these values.

We will defend our values and our interests. And to meet these challenges, we need the right strategies. Strategy now, as it was in Wilson’s day, is about perspective. 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. It means knowing which mix of foreign policy tools is best for a given situation. And it is about keeping focused on our interests…they’re our North Star whether in the Asia-Pacific, in Europe, or the Middle East.

Tomorrow morning, I leave for Asia. There I will continue to work to build a shared regional architecture that is strong enough, capable enough, and connected enough to ensure, as America has since World War II through its pivotal role in that region, that all Asia-Pacific peoples and nations, whether large or small, have the opportunity to win…to rise, to prosper, and to determine their own destiny.

As Secretary of Defense, I am working hard on the next phase of our rebalance to the region, in which the Defense Department is deepening long-standing alliances and partnerships, with Korea, Japan, Australia, India, among others, and is diversifying America’s force posture, making new investments in key capabilities and platforms, and building new partnerships with countries like Singapore and Vietnam.

Here’s an example of our approach. Because the Asia-Pacific is a maritime region, its security architecture must be, in part, a maritime one. We’re finalizing the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, which, as I announced in May, will build greater regional capacity to address maritime challenges. And we’re continuing our maritime exercises and engagements, such as the Southeast Asia Co-operation and Training, or SEACAT, maritime exercise with six ASEAN countries, including Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Many nations in the Asia-Pacific want to work with us, and we want to work with them too.

One reason for that is because we're also taking a stand for freedom of flight and navigation, the very rules and customs that have helped so many nations in the region rise. We're making it clear, that the United States continues to favor peaceful resolutions to ongoing disputes, and that we will continue to fly, sail, and operate whenever and wherever international law allows. We mean what we say. The South China Sea is not – and will not – be an exception.

We’re also staying vigilant in other domains. Even as the United States and China recently agreed to work together with other nations to promote international rules of the road for appropriate conduct in cyberspace, the Defense Department will continue to defend our networks. That’s our most important cyber-mission. Earlier this month, I was in Europe, where the transatlantic region faces challenges from Russia in the East, and the ripple effects of ISIL and other extremists exploiting instability in the Middle East and North Africa in the South.

In response to Russia’s actions in Europe and elsewhere, the United States and our allies are taking a strong and balanced approach. We will continue to deter Russia’s destabilizing influence, coercion, and aggression, which threaten the peace, stability and rules-based order that have served so many in Europe so well since the end of the Cold War.

To do this, we’re using a new play book. The old Cold War playbook worked, but it is not suited for the 21st Century. Our new playbook takes the lessons of history and leverages our Alliance’s strengths in new ways for these new challenges.

For example, the United States will provide enabling capabilities to strengthen NATO’s new very high Readiness Joint Task Force, or VJTF, which will help the Alliance quickly respond to crises in the East and the South. We’re supporting Ukraine with assistance, equipment, and training. We're working to help facilitate training and exercises, and to make our forces more agile, mobile and responsive in Europe by pre-positioning tanks, infantry-fighting vehicles, artillery and associated equipment needed for an armored brigade combat team. And we’re supporting NATO's Cyber Defense Center of Excellence, just to state another example, so it can help nations develop cyber strategies, critical infrastructure protection plans, and cyber defense posture assessments.

Lastly, two days ago I testified on our Middle East strategy where, amid the region’s kaleidoscopic complexity and uncertainty, America’s interests is our compass as we act to deter aggression; bolster the security of our friends and allies, especially Israel; ensure freedom of navigation in the Gulf; check Iran’s malign influence even as we monitor the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; and, degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL.

This last one, ISIL, poses a grave threat to the United States, the Middle East, Europe and our friends and allies around the world because of its steady metastasis and its evil intentions. That is why we formed a global coalition of 65 nations to deny ISIL a safe haven and deliver it a lasting defeat.

This coalition has conducted airstrikes, hampering ISIL's movement and operations and systematically targeting this terrorist group's leadership. And coalition strikes have helped enable operations by a variety of counter-ISIL forces on the ground in Syria and in Iraq. Such forces are necessary. The United States, and our coalition partners, can enable them but, we cannot substitute for them. They’re the only path to ISIL’s defeat lasting.

And we are adapting our campaign to gather its momentum, through what I call the three R’s. The first “R “is for Raqqa, ISIL’s stronghold in Syria. We are equipping and enabling local anti-ISIL forces to put pressure on it on the ground as we thicken our air campaign with more aircraft, more countries flying, and a higher rate of strikes. The second “R” is for Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province. It serves as a critical example of the Iraqi government’s commitment to work with local Sunni communities, to, with our help, retake and hold ground lost from ISIL and then build momentum to go northward.

And the third “R” is for raids, signaling that we won’t hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL, or conducting such missions directly – we did an example of the former just last week. And whether those strikes from the air or by direct action on the ground, as was the case last week.

Of course, as terrorist groups like ISIL pose highly adaptive threats across borders, regions, and combatant commands, we have to keep adapting as well.

In fact, this is true across the national security spectrum. To stay the best, the Defense Department of the United States must adapt and innovate and change. So I’ll take a moment to explain how we’re changing and how we’re doing business to manage transregional and transnational threats like ISIL, which are likely to last for years into the future. Because of that, we have to change our own force management, develop new platforms, and streamline our command-and-control structure. And we also have to develop networked security relationships with our friends and partners, because frequently, the enemy takes a form of a network itself and must be fought in that way.

We’re therefore building the structure of a new, transregional strategy for countering terrorism over the long term. This will be based on infrastructure we’ve already established in Afghanistan, the Levant, East Africa, and Southern Europe.

Because we cannot predict the future, these regional nodes – from Morón, Spain to Jalalabad, Afghanistan – will provide forward presence to respond to a range of crises, terrorist and other kinds. These will enable unilateral crisis response, counter-terror operations, or strikes on high-value targets. But they’re about more – they’ll also allow us to enable partners to respond to a range of challenges. To pre-position equipment for ourselves and our partners. And to provide important opportunities to innovate, to develop new command-and-control structure, new ways to manage the force, new capabilities, and new operational concepts.

The potential here is enormous. But we’re still developing some of these concepts. And as we do we do, we’re guided by a few principles. First, truly strategic perspective is required, the threat of terrorism, in one form or another, will be with us for a long time to come. Second, we need to plan for uncertainty. Third, wherever possible, we want to enable allies and partners. And fourth, we want to make adaptive and cost-effective decisions.

So the Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and terrorism, these are just four of the challenges the United States and the international order face. There will be more in the future. But we will continue to stand up for the international order that has served the United States, and so many others around the world so well, for so long. We will be ready, because we will continue to rely on – and tend – our remarkable strengths.

One is that we have the finest fighting force the world has ever known. And that’s true first and foremost because of our people themselves – more on that in the closing – and second only to them in importance, is the technology and the strategies they use.

To stay ahead of challengers and stay the best, we’re investing aggressively in innovation. We’re pushing the envelope with research into new technologies and innovative ways of doing things, in cyber, space, electronic warfare, and a host of other critical areas. We’re developing new partnerships with America’s private sector and tech communities – starting with setting up a Defense Department innovation hub in Silicon Valley.

And we’re working to continue to attract the best talent for our force of the future, so more of America’s brightest minds can contribute to our mission – even if only for a time, or on and off throughout their careers.

Another one of our strengths – as I've been reminded of in my travels since becoming Secretary of Defense – is that we also have all the friends. We have an unrivaled network of allies and partners – from Korea, where I will be this weekend, and others in the Asia-Pacific, where I’ll be with the leaders of ten or twelve nations over the next week, to our NATO alliance in Europe, to our global coalition against ISIL and other close partnerships in the Middle East. We have them, and other lack them, for several reasons…it’s not just because we’re so powerful or so capable, or because our antagonists and competitors push many states towards us – which they do – or because, as Woodrow Wilson knew, the gravitational pull of our country's values – though those are powerful too – but also, because at the most elemental, human level, because our troops are attractive partners, they perform and conduct themselves admirably…they make us proud.

So, as we conclude this beautiful night, we should remember that as I speak, there are more than 450,000 men and women deployed right now, in every time zone, in every domain…in the air, ashore, and afloat. These men and women are not only defending the United States and its people, they are also defending the American-led international order Wilson aspired to, the Cold War and post-Cold War generations helped establish, and leaders since Wilson, like President Obama have helped to defend and to renew.

Our operations and exercises are important to American security, American prosperity, and the American way of life, but they are just as important to security, prosperity, and values of so many around the world. It’s said, that security is like oxygen…when you have enough of it, you pay no attention to it. But when you don't have enough, you can think of nothing else.

America’s service members provide the oxygen…the security that allows people, not just in America, but in so much of the world to be safe, to raise children, to dream dreams, to live lives that are full.

Our service members take grave risks to provide that security, and some make the ultimate sacrifice. They do so not just because they were ordered to. They do so not only because they want to protect their buddies. They do so because they know they help make the world a better place. And they do so, as Wilson said, quote for the “things which we have always carried nearest our hearts.”

These are the values many of us have spent our lives also defending. I know Jane, Wes, Dennis, and many of you…do so every day. I thank you for that dedication. But we’re not finished yet. We have work still to do. With this award and Wilson’s example, I will spend the time I have to advance this noble fight. I trust you will join me.

Thank you. And good night.