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Remarks Honoring Secretary Madeleine Albright with the DOD Distinguished Public Service Award

Good afternoon, everyone. Guests, particularly of Secretary Albright, leadership of the department.  It is a great privilege to welcome Secretary Madeleine Albright to the Pentagon and to be joined today by so many long-time friends, colleagues, and dedicated public servants, including members of our Defense Policy Board.

While there’s no need to explain any recognition of Madeleine’s historic achievements and extraordinary work, it might seem odd to some of you that a Secretary of Defense would give the Department of Defense’s highest award to a Secretary of State. 

But it shouldn’t seem strange.  That’s because this award represents an enduring truth: our defense is so vital that we must shepherd it from strategic era to strategic era, from administration to administration, across parties, and across our government.  Defense requires a strategic perspective – that we understand our connections to the leaders and challenges of the past.

At the UN, in Foggy Bottom, and today, Madeleine has always kept the world in synoptic view, seeing all of its parts and problems at once, and using the great physical and moral strength of the world’s greatest nation wisely, to protect our people and make a better world. 

She’s always demonstrated a deep understanding of which mix of our nation’s foreign policy tools– whether it’s the nation’s exceptional diplomatic corps, our economic might, or the finest fighting force the world has ever known – is best for a given issue.  She’s always understood where present challenges fall in the broad arc of history, and how we can use history’s lessons to pursue today’s opportunities.  And she’s always known that in a complex and tumultuous world, our policy must be grounded in our interests and our ideals.

As Madeleine knows well from her work on the Defense Policy Board, this perspective and this complexity is something we contend with every day at the Department of Defense, as we face a new strategic era, with no fewer than five major, immediate, and evolving challenges: countering the prospect of Russian aggression and coercion, especially in Europe; managing historic change in the vital Asia-Pacific region; strengthening our deterrent and defense forces in the face of North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations; checking Iranian aggression and malign influence in the Gulf; and accelerating the defeat of ISIL in its parent tumor in Iraq and Syria and everywhere it’s metastasizing around the world.

While we don’t have the luxury of choosing among these challenges, we do have the ability to set a strategic course for the future: a future that’s uncertain moreover, and that will bring with it new and unforeseen challenges, but that will surely demand America’s leadership, values, and military strength. 

Now, as we set that strategic course, meet those challenges, and contend with that uncertain future, we can learn important lessons from Madeleine’s remarkable career…about the need for whole-of-government policy responses, about the strategic benefits of global partners, and about the enduring importance of American values and ideals. 

Madeleine has always known that strategic objectives must be pursued across government, with the support of every agency and every instrument of American strength.  That’s because ensuring victory in war requires much more than combat power alone.  The peace and stability that America’s servicemembers – like those whose names line the walls of this wonderful room – the peace and stability they fight for and sacrifice for also require just governance, meaningful reconciliation, improved education, economic progress, and the rule of law.  And, at State and in her continued work as chair of the National Democratic Institute, Madeleine has helped develop and advance the instruments and institutions needed to make and keep peace. 

She’s done so, in part, because Madeleine appreciates the enduring need to marry the United States’ economic and diplomatic leverage with our military might.  Few have been a more forceful and effective advocate for that sort of approach to national security policy than Madeleine Albright.  In the 1990s she worked for whole-of-government responses to, among other issues, end crises in Bosnia and Kosovo, counter nuclear proliferation, and normalize trade with China and diplomatic relations Vietnam.  I saw all this and more up close, and I have known and admired Madeleine ever since.

Twenty-one years ago this summer – and I remember this well – in the wake of tragedies like the attacks on Srebrenica, Madeleine worked with Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Secretary of Defense Bill Perry – for whom I was then working, National Security Advisor Tony Lake, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili, and many others, including Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, to develop a comprehensive American intervention – one that leveraged our military and allied strength and all our diplomatic firepower – to end the Bosnian War with the Dayton Accords. 

Madeleine’s work on Bosnia and later on Kosovo also reminds us of the importance of working with – and listening to – our unrivaled network of allies and partners, which no other country has.  That long-time network is an important strategic asset, one nurtured by generations of policymakers like Madeleine.

America’s representatives – whether on the Cabinet or the Joint Chiefs, in the Foreign Service or our military ranks – do the same today by embodying our values and ideals.  I hear this all the time about America’s servicemembers.  Defense leaders everywhere I go tell me they like working with our military.  That’s because our people aren’t only awesomely competent, but they also don’t intimidate, coerce, or exclude…they work with our allies and partners to ensure a better world.  That reputation makes me proud.

But it also makes our country stronger.  To ensure that unrivaled network of friends and partners in a changing world, we need to continue to embody our values and principles, to work with allies, and to listen to them.  Madeleine’s example is a good one to model. 

That was on display this spring when Madeleine gave a terrific commencement speech at Scripps College, in which she explained how people with different opinions, interests, and values – whether at home or around the world – can be brought together for common cause. 

Madeleine said, and I quote, “The challenge for our leaders is not to eliminate the diversity of…perspectives – for that’s not possible.  The challenge is to manage them – and when necessary, moderate them – so that we are not defined primarily by what keeps us apart.” 

Of course, as an immigrant to this country, Madeleine herself has always brought additional empathy to her work and a deeper appreciation for the need to bridge differences and opinions.  And over the course of her career and in her post-government work, Madeleine has brought us together again and again to make a better world.

As she’s done so, Madeleine’s helped ensure our nation is safer, stronger, and, yes, indispensable.  And because she’s stood up for America’s standards and ideals – shared by people and nation’s around the world – she’s also helped make the world more peaceful, and its people freer, healthier, and more prosperous.

In Washington and in the academy, it’s popular to say that “where you stand depends on where you sit.”  But Madeleine’s an exception.  Whether on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, on the NSC, or at the UN, her colleagues always knew where Madeleine stood on an issue: for standing up and standing by America’s ideals in the complex eras in which she’s worked…and still works.  As she’s helped ensure the United States does so, she has ruffled some feathers – in this building, in the interagency, around the world – she wouldn’t be the Madeleine Albright we all know and love if she hadn’t.  But she’s also inspired her colleagues and her country to remember and rededicate themselves – and ourselves – to those values and ideals.

Madeleine has said that, “A successful foreign policy must begin with the world as it is but also work for what we would like it to be.”  In her work, Madeleine’s made Washington, her country, and our world what we’d all like them to be: more civilized, more secure, and more hopeful. 

Madeleine, yours has been an American life.  Nowhere else would your story have been possible.  And you’ve dedicated your life to the life of your country.  As you’ve done so – and as you continue to do so – you represent the very best of this nation: we’ve never settled for the expedient, we’ve long strived for the exceptional.  So have you. 

On behalf of the men and women of the Defense Department, and on behalf of a grateful nation, Madeleine, we thank you.

So it is now my great honor to present the Distinguished Public Service Award to Secretary Madeleine Albright. 

Thank you.