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Remarks at XII Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas

Thank you, Minister Sajjan.  And thank you, Minister Dillon, for welcoming us to your country.  To you, and all my fellow ministers:  It’s a pleasure to be here at this year’s Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas.

I’m also pleased to be joined by my Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Dr. Rebecca Bill Chavez, and Admiral Kurt Tidd, commander of United States Southern Command.  I know they’ve worked closely, and worked well, with each of you and your militaries.  And I’m grateful to both of them for their hard work.

As all of you know, in April 2009, here in Port-of-Spain at the Summit of the Americas, President Obama began a new era of engagement for the United States in the Western Hemisphere.  Because the future of the United States is “inextricably bound” to the future of our entire hemisphere, he committed that going forward, there would be “no senior partner and junior partner in our relations,” instead, “engagement [would be] based on mutual respect” and the interests and principles all our nations share.

Over the past seven years, our countries have come together in new ways – economically, politically, and also militarily.  And I’ve come here today to discuss the next steps we can take together, because the partnership we’ve built among our defense establishments continues to be the foundation of our shared security in this hemisphere – our hemisphere.

Indeed, since 2009 we’ve entered a new era of increased cooperation.  As part of this new era, nations and militaries across our hemisphere have been doing more, and in more ways, to the benefit of all – contributing unilaterally, and multilaterally, to greater security in the region and beyond. 

As a hemisphere, we’ve made progress in several important areas.  For example, we’re leaders when it comes to peacekeeping.  Today, Brazil continues to lead the UN stabilization mission in Haiti, and commands the maritime forces for the UN in Lebanon.  Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Peru, and others have also emerged as key contributors – increasingly making critical contributions to peacekeeping missions in Haiti and Africa, sometimes supported by U.S. pre-deployment training and equipment.

Next, our hemisphere has also improved defense institutions and governance.  Guatemala has been a leader both in strengthening its own defense ministry, and in sharing expertise with its neighbors.  Colombia is also undertaking significant defense reforms, and as Colombians make progress toward ending the longest-running conflict in our hemisphere, we welcome their strong contributions to both regional and global security.

And finally, we’ve made progress in how we respond to disasters.  Chile and Mexico, for example, have been working with countries across Central America to build capacity in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.  Also, earlier this year, after the devastating earthquake in Ecuador, many countries in our hemisphere, including the United States, stepped up to support civilian agencies – with the U.S. Air Force deploying a mobile air traffic control tower that enabled more food, water, and supplies to reach those in need. 

And just this past week, when Hurricane Matthew struck parts of the Caribbean, Colombia, and parts of the United States, the region was stepping up again to help.  Last week the U.S. military was quick to support our civilian U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, standing up a joint task force and sending helicopters, engineers, and other assets to help with relief efforts in Haiti.  And other countries are responding as well – Colombia, for example, sent its offshore patrol vessel 7th of August to Haiti to help provide humanitarian assistance.

All this represents tremendous progress – we’ve made our hemisphere more secure and grown stronger as partners.  We must now build on that progress together, including in two areas I will mention today:  natural disasters, and the need for institutional reform. 

First, disasters like Hurricane Matthew underscore that many of the challenges we face, like climate change – which is on the agenda at CDMA again this year – don’t respect national or regional boundaries.  And whether it’s a storm, an earthquake, or rising sea levels, such disasters can create an immense burden on our militaries and security forces, highlighting the need for increased cooperation.

We’re all in this hemisphere together, and when we plan and prepare together, we’re better at responding when disaster strikes.  That’s why the United States supports the proposal for CDMA to develop a hemisphere-wide approach on multilateral disaster response.  For its part, the United States will increase its funding to help nations in our hemisphere build their military capacity to support civilian authorities with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and to facilitate even closer cooperation both regionally and sub-regionally.

The second area is defense institutional reform, which helps make our militaries more capable in their mission of defending our countries and making a better world for our children.  Here, the United States is committed to sharing lessons we’ve learned in our own reform efforts, and we’re committed to helping countries who also wish to do so to strengthen their defense institutions.  We’re all constantly transforming.  And as I’ve been working hard to improve the U.S. Defense Department, I know we can learn something from your countries as well.

To exchange lessons learned, the United States already partners with several countries here on defense reform, and based on increased demand, we intend to broaden these efforts in scale and scope – including through DoD’s Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies.

The United States would like to expand this institutional engagement with other nations as well, so we can share best practices and help each other become more capable.  That will enable our militaries to operate together more effectively – making our hemisphere stronger, and more secure.

Let me close by saying that the challenges we face in the Western Hemisphere are ones we all must come together to meet.  And we must do so consistent with shared principles – principles our countries agreed to over 20 years ago at the first CDMA in Williamsburg, Virginia.

It’s a complex world – in the U.S. Defense Department, for example, we’re addressing five major, very different, and evolving challenges, from Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and terrorism, and we’re also preparing to contend with an uncertain security future – but this hemisphere is a relative oasis of stability and freedom.  I know that doesn’t come freely, and I don’t take it for granted – it’s a credit to the efforts of the people in this room that our hemisphere is so full of bright opportunity.  Through partnership such as this room represents and what we agree on, let’s keep it that way and seize those wonderful opportunities that lie before all of us in the future.

Thanks to the partnership we’ve built among our nations, what we have and will agree to at this conference represents historic promise – the opportunity to shape a future that can be more prosperous and more secure for all our citizens.  Let us now go forward and do so together. 

Thank you.