As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Washington, D.C., Wednesday, April 30, 2014 at the 2014 Distinguished Leadership Awards.
Picture Gallery

 2014 Honorees

Distinguished International Leadership
Chuck Hagel
Jose Manuel Barroso

Distinguished Business Leadership
Thomas Enders

Distinguished Humanitarian Leadership
Ruslana Lyzhychko

Distinguished Military Leadership
Joseph Dunford

Thank you. I have Sergeant Major Battaglia sitting here in front of me, and he and other sergeants major still scare the hell out of me. Generals bother me, but sergeant majors scare me.

As you know, Sergeant Major, we don’t often get glorified introductions by distinguished generals like General Scowcroft, so I always savor the moment, as rare as they are. And to my friend, Brent Scowcroft, thank you. Thank you for your introduction, but thank you for your service to this country, what you have meant over the years, many, many years of service. Your wise, steady leadership has benefited many presidents, have over the years benefited our country, this special relationship, this transatlantic special relationship, as so many of you in this room have over the years.

As I look around this room tonight and observe the kind of leadership that America and our transatlantic partners have been blessed with, it is special. But it also says something about who we are as individuals. And I want to – as I acknowledge two in particular, Fred Kempe and Jon Huntsman, for their leadership and all those involved with the Atlantic Council, the sponsors here tonight, the staff here tonight, the scholars that do so much to enhance strategic thinking and our values.

I would say, Brent and to General Jones, with no slight intended, when they picked Huntsman, they upped the standards considerably from former chairmen. Certainly, I can speak for this former chairman. Jon Huntsman, thank you for taking this on. It is a privilege – we all know that – to be associated with this institution. So, thank you.

I also want to recognize the other honorees tonight for your service, for your leadership, what you mean to global leadership. To Ruslana, thank you for your eloquent words of courage and encouragement and, as has been noted tonight, reminding us of our human responsibilities, the values that we possess, our countries, what this relationship, what this alliance really means.

I also want to acknowledge the men and women all over the world who serve our country. They’re in over 100 countries, 400,000 men and women deployed, stationed all around the world. It’s a tough job, and that I know is personal to many in this room, many former senior leadership individuals at the Pentagon are here tonight, not just military, but civilian. And to them, thank you for your service. A special service.

And, of course, a special salute to ISAF, American partners in Afghanistan, what you have meant, what you continue to do, how you have truly helped shape a part of the world that 13 years ago was left in some despair with very little hope. And so to all who serve their countries in uniform, in particular the transatlantic alliance militaries, the NATO militaries; America’s military men and women; General Breedlove, for your continued important, defining leadership in Brussels at NATO; General Dunford, and all the men and women you represent; thank you.

I, like many in this room, have been privileged and fortunate in my life to have lived at this spectacular time in the world, a time that is not without complications, not without problems, not without threats and challenges that emerge daily, and new challenges emerge, but alliances have been, in my lifetime – and I think everyone in this room – have been anchors.

And I know of no anchor of security more important to keeping peace in the world since World War II than NATO, than the transatlantic alliance. Imperfect. We still have problems in the world, yes.

But when we take some inventory of where we’ve come from in our lifetimes – no World War III, no dimension even close to the first 50 years of the 20th century, no nuclear exchange. Problems, yes. Still humanitarian disasters, yes. Conflicts, yes. But, overall, it’s been a pretty successful last 60 years because of this alliance… because of this alliance.

We have not solved all the problems. I suspect, in the rest of our careers in this room, we won’t solve all the problems. But we have built platforms and abilities and alliances to work together in common purpose and common interest to address these challenges together. And that fundamentally was the point of NATO and knitting together a strong transatlantic alliance after World War II.

We live in a constantly shifting world. We all recognize that. But the accelerated rate of change and shift is probably unknown to all of us. It is unprecedented in the history of man. All we need to do is start surveying the diffusion of economic power in the world today versus 10 years ago – emerging powers, democracies, economies.

And after all, wasn’t that the point behind all of this effort that our great leaders came to and agreed upon after World War II? To, in fact, give people of the world opportunities, freedom? That is directly connected to security and continuity and stability. You can’t have one without the other.

So, in fact, in many ways, a lot of what we all started out to accomplish we have, in fact, accomplished some of that. That’s brought new competitions. Technology has driven that. But as nations emerge, more people are free, economies grow, there will be more competitions.

And therein lies the essence of alliances, alliances of common purpose. We don’t always agree. Probably won’t always agree on issues. But on the end result and the purpose of an alliance – the purpose of governance, the purpose of organized society – remains the same.

When we look at our country, America, today, and ISAF countries, I know, you all know that historically after wars nations tend to look inward. They tend to look at where we, each nation, people, focus resources, need to do more within our own society, whether it’s infrastructure, more education. All that is important, critically important.

But we must not forget the lessons after World War II that the great leaders of that era – and the world was blessed with so many all over the world – when they came together and when most of their countries were not particularly supportive of foreign engagement or getting back in to supporting each other, certainly military alliances, because the world had had enough war.

And I think at this time where we are in America and in the world, we run a risk of allowing ourselves to become captive to that thinking. Again, I don’t think we’re there. But it’s going to require continued, focused, strong, steady, wise, engaged leadership with the world, with each other.

This is not a time to retreat; this is not a time to pull back. There’s a smart way to do things, and then there’s not a smart way to do things. We all know that, and history has taught us some severe lessons on that point.

But that is what I wanted to note tonight, because so many wise words have been dispensed tonight – words of hope and possibilities and compassion and thanks, and all revolve around who we are as people and the goodness of who our societies are and what they represent. But we must not forget the lessons of history and the lessons that those great leaders post-World War II taught our world.

We cannot retreat. We need to continue to push out and to engage a world that’s still dangerous. Any corner of the world reminds us of that danger. But we’re up to it.

If there is ever a time in history where we have the tools, where we have the capacity, where we have the institutions to engage and fix the problems, it is now. Never in the history of man has there been so many resources and so many institutions and structures to allow us to accomplish that.

But like all things – and everyone in this room knows it, because you’ve all been part of it and many of you still are – it’s leadership. It’s people. And we can never cut corners on either one. And that’s why I have been so proud to be part of the military of the United States in the brief time I’ve had the privilege of serving as Secretary of Defense. The quality of our men and women, the belief of these men and women in high causes and purposes… not that you have to wear a uniform to believe in high purpose and cause, but these are men and women with their families who sacrifice so much.

As long as we stay strong with the quality of our people and we match that with quality leadership – and I can tell you, from my perspective, I’ve seen that leadership, we have that leadership in this country, we have that leadership in our alliance partners – and I say that not because I am somehow self-absorbed by or with this job. I am that, but I’m pretty [self]-critical, too. We have to be. Leaders have to be.

When you see weaknesses, when you see things that need to be done, you need to fix them. And as long as we continue to have that kind of courage to be who we are and stand for what we believe, we match our principles with our interests. And it’s never perfect – so many of you in this room know all about that. It’s never an easy scenario or decision when you get into these tough calls. But principle and values must always anchor every decision that we make.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m honored and very much appreciate this opportunity to thank all of you for what you do for our country, for all our countries, for our alliance.

And in just a bit of a parochial note, what you do for the Atlantic Council, because I think, as has been noted tonight – and I say this not just as a former chairman of the board who had the privilege of playing that role for a couple of years – but because this alliance, represented by many institutions, but this institution in particular, the Atlantic Council, is really unique and is here at a unique time and is here because many people contribute over the years to make it. We must not squander this moment. Thank you.