Speech
Secretary of Defense Speech

As Prepared Remarks by Secretary Esper at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels

Oct. 24, 2019
Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper

Good morning, and thank you Ian for that introduction. It is great to be here in Brussels at the German Marshall Fund – an institution named after a great leader and a historic development program. Behind my desk in the Pentagon hangs a portrait of George Marshall taken when he was General of the Army in 1945. I have long admired Marshall for his bold ideas and courage to advance them. He is considered by many in the military as the greatest general officer of his time. He and I are also from the same hometown, so that may have something to do with why I’m such a big fan.

I just came from the Middle East, where I spent a few days with our commanders and troops in the field, and met with our international partners in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. At each stop, I was encouraged by much of what I saw and heard. In Afghanistan, the Resolute Support Train, Advise, and Assist mission continues to improve the capability of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. Their ability to maintain security during the recent elections was a good indication of the progress they’ve made. In Saudi Arabia, we continue to reinforce our partners with additional aircraft, air and missile defense systems, and other defensive assets. We urge our allies in Europe to follow our lead and contribute their own support to help deter Iranian aggression, promote stability in the region, and defend the international rules-based order. And in Iraq, where I just came from yesterday, the Defeat ISIS Coalition continues to support the Iraqis in their efforts to ensure the lasting defeat of that terrorist organization.

Despite these positive signs, however, threats to the security and stability of the Middle East still abound. In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s unwillingness to stop their senseless attacks on innocent civilians set back negotiations to establish peace. Iran’s continued malign behavior throughout the Middle East, to include its recent attacks on the Saudi ARAMCO oil facilities, presents a persistent threat to our partners in the region. And Turkey’s irresponsible incursion into Northern Syria jeopardizes the gains made there in recent years. It is clear there is still a long way to go to achieve peace and stability in that part of the world.

In fact, the numerous security challenges of today have the potential to consume our time, to sap our resources, and to dominate our focus. The commencement this month of our nineteenth consecutive year of conflict in Afghanistan is a reminder of just how difficult it is to end a war. As we continue our efforts around the world to protect the homeland, help defend our allies and partners, and safeguard our interests, we must do so with an eye to the future. New threats are on the horizon that we ignore at our own peril. Meeting these challenges requires us to contend with today’s foes while simultaneously preparing for tomorrow’s potential adversaries…before it’s too late.

The world around us is changing at a pace faster than ever before. New technologies have emerged that could dramatically alter the character of war. Advancements in fields such as artificial intelligence, hypersonic weapons, and directed energy lasers increasing the lethality of modern weapons systems and expanding the geometry of the battlefield.Staging areas for troops, aircraft, and ships, safely removed from the effects of enemy weapons in the past, are now within range of modern missile systems. Satellites that transmit vital communications and positioning data miles overhead are increasingly vulnerable to attack. And military bases, used as power projection platforms, are exposed to cyber threats that aim to disrupt the infrastructure needed to deploy forces.

In the future, wars will be fought not just on the land and on the sea, as they have for thousands of years; or in the air as they have for the past century; but also in outer space and cyber space in unprecedented ways. Preparing for this type of warfare requires a renewed focus on high-intensity conflict, continued reliance on allies and partners, the willingness to make sufficient investments in defense spending, and the foresight to expand our warfighting capabilities across all five of these domains.

The United States National Defense Strategy remains the Department’s guidepost as we adapt the force to this new environment. The NDS prioritizes China first, and Russia second, as we transition our primary focus towards great power competition. It is increasingly clear that Beijing and Moscow wish to reshape the world to their favor at the expense of others. Through predatory economics, political subversion, and military force, they seek to erode the sovereignty of weaker states. Over time, this activity is undermining the current international rules-based order that generations before us worked so hard to achieve.

It is quite fitting that this very institution where we gather this morning was first established to commemorate a strategy that helped create this order. The Marshall Plan, along with other post-World War II initiatives, was grounded in a common set of principles such as democracy, freedom, human rights, national sovereignty, and free trade. The international system that followed has long served as the foundation for our security and prosperity. But today, China and Russia – nations with a view of the world very different than our own – are using their growing power to coercively alter the strategic environment. And they are doing so in a way that uses this system against us.

Throughout my travels over my first three months as Secretary of Defense, I heard first-hand from allies and partners around the world about the damage that is being done. China’s “One-Belt, One-Road” Initiative has left several nations with unsustainable debt, forcing them to trade sovereignty for financial relief. Even developed nations fear China’s growing leverage, which not only impacts their economic and political decisions, but perhaps worse, leads them to make sub-optimal security decisions.

I would caution my friends in Europe against adopting the mindset that American concerns about Chinese economic and military expansion are overstated or not relevant to their national security. The PRC’s influence is rapidly expanding as it continues to pursue new partners well beyond Asia. Our security must not be diminished by a short and narrow-sighted focus on economic opportunity.

The United States is not asking nations to choose between China and the rest of the world, but we are asking them to choose a future that supports democracy, enables economic prosperity, and protects human rights. All countries must enter their relationship with the PRC with eyes wide open. China’s state sponsored theft of intellectual property, militarization of the South China Sea, and mistreatment of ethnic minorities are all clear examples of Beijing’s unwillingness to abide by international rules and norms. The ongoing protests in Hong Kong are a consequence of Beijing’s gradual erosion of the rights guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” agreement in 1997. In a world dominated by China, these actions by the state would constitute acceptable behavior.

Similarly, Russia’s foreign policy demonstrates a blatant disregard for state sovereignty. In addition to their miltary incursions in Georgia and Ukraine, their use of cyber warfare and information operations continues to interfere in other states’ domestic affairs. In the case of both China and Russia, their malign behavior, combined with aggressive military modernization programs, puts the international security environment on a trajectory that should concern all free nations.

Over the next two days, as I meet with our NATO allies here in Brussels, my message will be clear: The United States commitment to NATO and to Article 5 is ironclad; however, for the Alliance to remain strong, every member must contribute its fair share to ensure our mutual security and uphold the international rules-based order. This means not only contributing to the important NATO security missions around the world today, but also making sufficient investments towards the capabilities needed to deter China and Russia tomorrow.

In 2014, all 28 NATO Allies made a commitment to a defense-spending goal of two percent of Gross Domestic Product by 2024. However, only eight nations have so far achieved this important goal. Just over half of the Allies are currently on track to reach this level of defense spending; I commend them for meeting their obligation on time. But a number of other NATO members are unfortunately falling short.

Cumulatively, the Allies have planned $100 billion in defense spending increases through the next year – a laudable feat – but as we’ve all agreed, “we can, must, and will do more.”Anticipating our Leaders Meeting in December, I urge all Allies that do not yet have a credible plan to implement the Wales Defense investment pledge and develop one soon. There can be no free riders to our shared security. Regardless of geographic location, size, or population, all must do their part to deter war and defend the alliance. We are only as strong as the investments we are willing to make towards our common defense.

In terms of readiness, I’m encouraged by the progress Allies are making.We are close to our goal of “the Four 30’s by 2020.” As our leaders agreed when they adopted the NATO Readiness Initiative, having the additional 30 air squadrons, 30 combat vessels, and 30 mechanized battalions ready to fight in 30 days or less is a critical first step to re-instilling a culture of readiness of the alliance. I expect that by the NATO Leaders Meeting in December, we will have 100 percent of these important contributions identified.

Together, we all have an obligation to prepare for the challenges of the future – even as we manage the security issues of the present. The international order constructed following World War II benefited the entire world. Initiatives like the Marshall Plan helped to rebuild the continent, restore political order, and bring about economic prosperity following a time of great destruction.

That order has largely remained intact – but there is no inherent permanence to its design. Our adversaries seek to weaken the integrity of these institutions and incrementally reshape the international system. Should we remain complacent and fail to recognize the shifting landscape, we risk inviting greater aggression and further challenges to our shared values and security. Defending this system and deterring this aggression remains our primary task, and we can only do this by working closely together to maintain a ready, capable alliance that is prepared to fight and win. I am confident that we will be successful in doing so if we fully commit to this task and lead our citizens toward this goal.

I appreciate your time this morning and I look forward to your questions.

Thank you.