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Remarks at the World Affairs Council Global Education Gala

Well, thanks, Pat.  And thanks so much for welcoming both Stephanie and me here tonight.

I stand between you and dinner, so I will be brief.  But first note, it's good to see so many ambassadors here.  Your presence represents the deep friendships that the United States has with so many countries around the world.  And what it represents is that we stand for common things, common values, a common ethos of civilization, and it today's world, that brings us even closer together, one of the themes of what I'll say in a moment.

One of our closest allies has a new ambassador here.  So Kim and Vanessa, welcome to the Washington community.

And many others.  I see Iraq here, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ukraine, and I could go on and on and on.  Thank you all for being here and honoring us with your friendship.  To build cooperative relationships with your countries, countries that are strong enough and capable enough and connected enough to give our peoples the security and the opportunity to rise and thrive in what is still a young century.

I also want to recognize Captain Flo Groberg.

Flo, where are you?

Last year, received our highest award, the Medal of Honor.


Flo's still getting used to that but I've told him it's going to last his whole life long.  He represents the highest caliber of individuals who have helped defend our nation and what we all stand for, over 15 years in Iraq and also Afghanistan.  They represent a tradition of service and sacrifice that's been passed from generation to generation.  And earlier today, Secretary of Veterans Affairs McDonald and I laid a wreath at the Vietnam Memorial to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that war.

There are a number of veterans here tonight, and I know that, and I want to take this opportunity, to the Vietnam veterans, to thank all of you for your service, and all veterans.  But to the Vietnam veterans especially, a special thanks that was not properly rendered when they first came home.

Now I want to accept this award, not on my behalf but on behalf of all the magnificent men and women of the Department of Defense, those who continue that great legacy of service that I was honoring this morning.

Right now, right now, as we're here tonight, there are 450,000 American men and women deployed across the globe, every time zone, every domain, in the air, the shore and the afloat, men and women who've answered the call of the noblest of missions, which is to provide security.  I always say that security is like oxygen.  If you have enough of it, you tend to pay no attention to it.  But if you don't have it, it's all you can think of.  The men and women of the U.S. military do what they do so that everybody else can sleep peacefully at night, wake up in the morning, take their kids to school, go to work, dream their dreams, live their lives.  That's what they do.

And the United States is a great nation with great responsibilities.  And in this interconnected world, we can't afford to ignore either many of the challenges of our friends and allies together.  Our national defense strategy, our strategy, and by the way, the budget that I submitted earlier this month to Congress, reflects the need for us to confront five evolving challenges today; Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and ISIL, or terrorism more broadly.  We don't have the luxury of choice among these.  We have to do them all.

The first two of these challenges reflect a return, in some ways, to great power of competition of the past.  One is in Europe, where we're taking a strong and balanced approach to deter Russian aggression.  And we haven't had to focus on that very much for a quarter century, since the Soviet Union ended and the Berlin Wall came down, but now we do.

Second challenge is in the Asia Pacific, which is the single more consequential region to America's future because it's where half of humanity resides and half of economic activity of the planet, and that's only growing.  There, China is rising, which is fine, but behaving aggressively, which is not.

Meanwhile, two other longstanding challenges pose threats in specific regions.  North Korea is one.  And that's why our forces on the Korean Peninsula remain ready, as they say and have said for decades now, this is their slogan, to “fight tonight.”  Not what we want to do, by any means, but we're ready to do.

And the other is Iran, because while the nuclear accord reached last year is a good deal for preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, we must still deter Iranian aggression and malign influence against our allies and friends.

The fifth challenge very different from the other four, very important is our ongoing fight against terrorism, and specifically ISIL.  Last week's attacks in Brussels are a grim reminder of the dangers and the challenges that persist in this world.  Our thoughts and prayers are, first of all, with all of those who are affected by this tragedy, including American citizens, as well as citizens of many other countries represented here tonight.

The United States military, us, we at the same time, are focused on winning this fight against ISIL and I'm confident we will.  We're accelerating our campaign to deal ISIL a lasting defeat, most immediately in Iraq and Syria.  That's where the parent tumor of this cancer is and we need to defeat it there.  It's necessary, but not sufficient.  We need to defeat it in other places to which it's metastasized, North Africa, Afghanistan and elsewhere.  And we, in defense, provide support to our intelligence in homeland security and federal and local law enforcement colleagues also to protect the homeland.

The reality is we're bringing more and more power to bear against ISIL.  We're gathering momentum in this campaign.  We're systematically eliminating their cabinet, killing their financial chief and eliminating their minister of war just in the last two weeks.

Our campaign plan is to work with local, capable and motivated forces to collapse ISIL's control, its power centers in Raqqah and Mosul, and we're doing so, we will do so.

We've severed the main artery between Syria and northern Iraq.  Iraqi security forces are now advancing in directions all directions and continue the envelopment of Mosul.

We've set a course for the future: a future that will surely be competitive and demanding of America's leadership and values and military edge.  But in our overall approach, and also in our budget for that matter, we're taking the long view as well as the near-term view.  We have to because even as we fight today's fights, we must also be prepared for what might come, 10, 20, 30 years down the road.

Last fall's Bipartisan Budget Act gave us some much needed stability after years of gridlock and turbulence, and we're grateful for it.  It set the size of our budget.  And with this degree of certainty, we focused on its shape, changing that shape in fundamental but carefully considered ways to adjust to a new strategic era and to seize opportunities for the future.

In order to succeed in our mission of national defense, we need not only strategic perspective, budget stability, but also and this is where things connect with the theme of this evening and this wonderful organization that sponsors this evening to think, as I tell our folks, outside of our five-sided box, the Pentagon, and foster a spirit of innovation and reform at every level.  That's why we're making increased investments in science and technology, innovating in our military operations and building new bridges in some cases, rebuilding bridges, so the amazing American technology industry to stay ahead of tomorrow's threats.

Last week, I visited the U.S. Military Academy, West Point.  I had the opportunity to visit a physics lab where I observed undergraduate cadets you'd have been so proud working on very high-level projects.  And I told them how proud I was of them, not only for their considerable commitment to service but for their spirit of inquiry, for their pursuit of an education that will equip them with the careful and analytical and quantitative skills that will help them work through any problem they may encounter in the future.  They're learning what so many people never had the opportunity to learn, the ability to push beyond the barrier of their existing knowledge and discover new solutions.

Competing for such good people, competing for people for what is, after all, an all-volunteer force, recruiting, retaining and then developing them is a critical part of our military edge, what I call the force of the future.  And everyone should understand this need and my commitment to meeting it.

That's also why, among other things, we're opening all combat positions to women, to expand our access because we can't afford to not have access to half of our population.  And as good as America's technology is, it's nothing compared to our people.

We're also implementing several new initiatives to create what I call off-ramps, which gives some of our own people, military and civilian, gives them the opportunity to get out and to learn about how the rest of the world works outside of our walls, and on-ramps, that allow more people outside DOD to engage with and contribute to our mission.  We want to make it possible for people outside DOD to come in for a while, try it, maybe not for a career but for a few years, maybe it'll stick, and contribute to our consequential mission.

The World Affairs Council does an excellent job of doing just that, engaging citizens.  And I have the mission of engaging our citizenry in the noble and essential mission of national defense.  We have that in common.  And also with informing them of the challenges and the opportunities, the opportunities in today's world.  And we, at the Department of Defense, want to give citizens the opportunity to be part of something bigger than themselves, helping provide security by bringing ideas and perspective to the table.

So I want to thank all of you for what you do and for this distinguished honor.  In a world that is more interconnected and more complex and more challenging, we need you.  Institutions like the World Affairs Council, dedicated to expanding understanding and cooperation, are more important than ever.  I'm grateful for everything you do.

Thank you.  Thank you for representing our troops.  And bless you on this night.