May 3, 2016
2016 Distinguished Leadership Awards: Remarks by The Hon. Robert M. Gates
ROBERT M. GATES: It’s just like a CIA award. They give it to you, and then they take it away. (Laughter.)
Well, first of all, let me thank all of you for your endurance this evening on a weekday night. I would like to thank the Atlantic Council for this honor, and thank all of you for attending this wonderful event tonight.
I’m especially pleased that my best friend, most important mentor, and godfather of the Atlantic Council, Brent Scowcroft, is with us tonight. Brent? (Applause.)
Thank you, Michèle, for your generous remarks. I believe you should be the first woman to serve as secretary of defense. (Applause.)
I may also offer my congratulations to the other award recipients this evening: Henry Kravis, Vittorio Grigòlo and General Joe Votel.
Now, a little side story about Vittorio. I was giving a farewell dinner at Café Milano for General Pete Pace, who was going out as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And the owner of Milano, Franco, came to Mary Claire Murphy and said, we have this amazing young tenor sitting at the bar here in the restaurant; would you like him to come sing? (Laughter.) And Mary Claire, with her obvious eye for talent, said, well, of course. And so my first encounter with Vittorio was in 2007, when he sang at the farewell ceremony and dinner for General Pete Pace.
Well, I was told that I’m expected to provide substantive acceptance remarks for this award – (laughter) – but to keep my substance to five minutes. (Laughter.) Which, I might add, would probably be short than everybody else’s remarks tonight. (Laughter, applause.) But it does remind me of the occasion when George Bernard Shaw told a speaker he was introducing that he had to keep his remarks to 15 minutes. The speaker complained and said, how can I tell them everything I know in 15 minutes? And Shaw said, well, I advise you to speak very slowly. (Laughter.)
Almost exactly five years ago, in my last major speech as secretary of defense, I warned an audience in Brussels of a growing threat to the Atlantic alliance, a threat from within. I said then: “Some two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. share of NATO defense spending has now risen to more than 75 percent. The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress and in the American body politic writ large to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources, to make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”
I continued: “Indeed, if current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders – those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me – may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”
A lot of Europeans were offended by what I had to say. But that future day I warned of five years ago has arrived, with at least one presidential candidate urging reevaluation of our commitment to NATO, including our troop presence in Europe, and in Asia as well, and other prominent voices – political voices in both political parties sounding more isolationist with each passing day.
We see a world where Russia and China are becoming ever more assertive, terrorist networks are actively targeting multiple European countries as well as the United States, crises in the Middle East are destabilizing multiple states and flooding Europe with immigrants. There’s Iran. There’s North Korea. The EU faces deep internal divisions and challenges. And the international environment is ever more complex and more dangerous than it has been for decades.
In such a world, continued global leadership on both sides of the Atlantic, with all of its cost, is more necessary than ever. Europe must get its internal security house in order to deal more effectively with terrorism, and must as well increase its investment in defense capabilities. The United States must increase its military capabilities, both through spending defense dollars more wisely and finding additional resources to deal with the growing capabilities, both in numbers and technologies, of potential adversaries.
But above all, Americans, and especially American leaders, must reject isolationism. Whether prompted by the need to address domestic needs or the belief that some of our allies are taking advantage of us, their inaction must not become an excuse for our own. Contrary to the views of some politicians, continuing American global leadership in our own – is in our own economic, political and security interests, not simply and only an altruistic act. America turning inward not only will make the world more dangerous for others, but also for us.
Seven years ago, in presenting this same award to President George H.W. Bush, I quoted him as saying that “a peaceful, prosperous world required the leadership, the power, and, yes, the conscience of the United States of America.” That wisdom is as true today as ever.
In a speech at Harvard in September 1943, Winston Churchill told his audience: “The price of greatness is responsibility.” The people of the United States cannot escape world responsibility. The United States today is still a great nation, but it cannot – and it will not – remain great if it seeks to escape responsibility and global leadership. And that message must be carried forward by this audience, and all who believe that only if America leads can the Atlantic alliance and our other friends and allies work together to secure the future.
Thank you for this honor. (Applause.)