Speaking at an event hosted by the Center for the National Interest, where he accepted that organization’s 2015 Distinguished Service Award, the secretary also sounded several notes of caution as he addressed issues of concern that affect people around the world.
Carter said in his opinion, the United States is in “much better shape than many will admit.”
“This may be controversial … [to] a body of realists, and maybe a little surprising coming from a secretary of defense,” he said, “but I am incredibly optimistic about America’s position in the world today.”
“The greatest thing about the U.S. military, the finest fighting force the world has ever known, is its people,” the secretary said. “But second comes the technology.”
Carter, who previously served in the Pentagon as chief of acquisition, logistics and technology, as well as deputy defense secretary, noted that the department itself doesn’t make any of its own weapons, hardware and software.
Unlike the nationalized arms supply established under the Soviet Union, he said, “our system is one where we buy from companies that are subject to all the other pressures of companies that have to live in competitive capital markets. … That is the great strength of our country.”
Security and Opportunity
The United States is a powerhouse on the global network because it has remarkable, unparalleled strengths,” Carter said, noting that the U.S. economy has made great gains since recovering from the worst recession since the Great Depression. Continued progress is assured, he added, “because of America’s dynamic and innovative businesses, world-class universities, and the domestic energy revolution now underway.”
U.S. forces have improved readiness, maintained an unmatched operational edge and preserved unrivaled capabilities, he noted. “No other military possesses this kind of skill and agility backed by experience,” he said.
The best way to ensure a better future for the planet is to seize a strong place of comparative advantage in the burgeoning markets represented by an exploding global middle class, the secretary told the audience.
During his recent travels in the Asia-Pacific region, Carter signed a joint vision statement in Vietnam and concluded a 10-year defense cooperation framework in India.
“There,” he said, “we’re protecting our country, and our allies and our partners, and supporting a regional security architecture, built on a foundation of rules and norms, that has helped so many in the region to rise and prosper.
“Regardless of what is going on … in other parts of the world,” said he continued, “for decade upon decade, during Democratic and Republican presidencies, in time of surplus and deficit, war and peace, it is the United States that has helped maintain stability, and the resulting prosperity, in the Asia-Pacific, uninterruptedly, for seven decades. Our rebalance, so-called, to the region is simply about making sure we always will.”
The United States also is taking a balanced approach in the Middle East in the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Carter said.
“We strike from the air while on the ground, we’re advising and assisting the Iraqi security forces,” he said, “because we know that only they can secure their country in the long run — because their leadership is the only path to ISIL’s lasting defeat.”
The secretary emphasized that civilian safety and working with the Iraqi government have been paramount considerations throughout that campaign. “We’re trying to take great care to protect the lives of fellow human beings, in stark contrast to our enemy,” he said. “And alongside a global coalition of allies and partners, we’re working by, with and through the government of Iraq, because we believe that a multisectarian Iraq — while, in fact, difficult to preserve — is better than the alternatives.”
Defending Interests and Values in Europe
“We’re defending our interests and our values in Europe as well — standing with those eager to keep moving forward, and against those who would turn back the clock,” Carter said.
“The Kremlin and [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, are challenging NATO, the United States and the international order,” he continued. “But this past year has demonstrated once again the solidarity of NATO and its partners in Europe. And only a few years after some questioned the relevance of the trans-Atlantic alliance, NATO has been re-energized, and we’re doing a great deal together, including exercises, joint training, and capability enhancement.”
Although he remains optimistic, Carter said, he acknowledged that the world presents many challenges, ticking off a list of persistent threats.
“North Korea continues to provoke, ISIL’s barbarism outrages the world, [and] Russia’s aggressive actions have upset more than two decades of peace and stability in Europe,” he said. “In Asia, disputes over rocks and shoals are complicated by evolving power dynamics, as several regional powers rise. … Terrorism, foreign fighters, cyberattacks, and other ills threaten lives and the security of many around the world including in the United States.”
Leading Security Efforts
Since returning to government as the 25th secretary of defense, Carter said, his travels have reminded him that the nation’s strengths are multiplied by an unrivaled network of allies and partners. “From Japan, Korea, Australia, India and others in the Asia-Pacific; to our NATO alliance in Europe; to our global coalition against ISIL and other close partnerships in the Middle East, we have these strong and deepening relationships for several reasons,” he said.
“First, nobody’s more capable, as I said,” Carter told the audience. “We have unparalleled people, technology, training and experience. Second, our antagonists and competitors push many states towards us, giving us so many friends and partners and leaving countries like China and Russia, not to mention North Korea, to stand largely alone. And third, nations seek our friendship, not because of our power alone, but because of the gravitational pull of our country’s ideals, and values, and goodwill.”
Although its unrivaled advantages and global network of friends make America’s global strength unique, Carter said, it’s important to maintain perspective, looking upon the whole world, being clear-eyed about strengths and vulnerabilities, and avoiding the complacency that has overtaken so many established powers throughout history.
“We must not allow that to happen,” he said. “Strategy, now as in the past, is about perspective. Keeping perspective means keeping all the world in synoptic view. It also means knowing which mix of foreign policy tools is best for a given situation. It means understanding where our challenges today fall in the context of history and how we can use history’s lessons to pursue today’s opportunities.”
It means appreciating that preventing the development of serious dangers, when possible, is more efficient and effective than confronting them later, Carter said.
“Too many tend to forget this last point,” he said, “but by standing strong today with diplomacy, economic tools and our military, we can forestall worse problems down the road.”
That approach served the United States well in the aftermath of World War II, the secretary said. “That’s the approach that [former defense secretary] Bill Perry and I termed ‘preventive defense’ years back, in a book we wrote when we left government service 20 years ago. Preventive defense, like preventive medicine, meant averting dangerous developments before they required drastic remedies.”
But just as preventive medicine does not ensure perfect health, he cautioned, preventive defense is not a guarantee of American security.
“What it can do,” he explained, “is appreciate the uncertainty inherent in the international system and help us pursue balance between interests and principles, between excellence in action and prudence in restraint, and between today’s security and the future’s threats.”