Thanks, everybody—thanks, Michèle. After looking at the program, I’d say you have quite the lineup: a four-star general, a PBS news anchor, a national security adviser . . . and a budget guy. Now, some of you might think that’s kind of a letdown, but I’d like to think I’m the entertainment.
And in all seriousness, I’d like to thank you for this opportunity. I don’t get to talk about national security as much as I’d like. So let me begin by saying this: I’m very concerned about where we stand in the world and what it means for us. You might think that working on the budget would narrow your perspective—that national security would become just another number on a spreadsheet. But that hasn’t been my experience. Wrestling with the tough decisions, seeing the hard choices, running on a national ticket and contemplating all that comes with it—it’s made me all too aware of what it takes to keep us safe and how our current policies are falling short.
So I was very interested to watch the president’s speech at West Point last month. I will say I agreed with some of what I heard. But over the past five years, I can’t say I agree with a lot of what I’ve seen. And what I’ve seen is—in far too many cases—the president doesn’t back up his words with actions. It’s not that he says one thing and does another. It’s that he doesn’t do enough. The instinct is to go for the bare minimum—just enough to show concern, but not enough to get results. And after five years, I think it’s worn down our credibility.
And I don’t think this is a tactical mistake. You can’t chalk it up to just a few bad calls. I think it’s a strategic mistake. It’s a deeper misunderstanding of what leadership is. The way he tells it, you can’t lead if nobody will follow you. And nobody will follow you if you’re arrogant and hypocritical. And you know what? He’s got a point. But here’s what he’s missing: Nobody will follow you if you’re weak and indecisive, either.
That’s the problem. It’s not that America might go it alone. It’s that our allies might go their own way—because they’re losing faith in us. Saudi Arabia speaks openly of building nuclear weapons. South Korea and Japan harbor similar thoughts. And all the while Russia, China, and a gang of rogue states continue to disrupt international order. Our allies are anxious, and we’re not reassuring them. They’re calling for help, and nobody’s picking up the phone.
And what it all comes down to—all the hand-wringing and indecision—is how you answer this question: Why should America lead? The president says we’re exceptional because we “affirm” international norms. Well, that’s true. But that’s only part of it. I think America is something more than a team player. We don’t just affirm international norms; we shape them. We make human rights an issue. We make free enterprise the norm. And so America should lead not just because of whom we stand with—but what we stand for: freedom, justice, and the rule of law.
That’s why our allies are so disappointed. We seem to have forgotten that part of our leadership: our vision. When Russia invaded Ukraine, the president spoke with all the moral outrage of an instruction manual. The best he could summon up was “deeply destabilizing.” Well, foreign policy isn’t just a matter of norms. It is also a matter of right and wrong. A leader has to propose and explain and defend a course of action—not just ask for a show of hands. And then—once you make a decision—you have to follow through.
Now, the world isn’t perfect, and we shouldn’t try to make it so. To say we’re the leader isn’t to say we’re always the enforcer. Instead, we’re the chief advocate—for our interests and our principles—because a lot of people in the world share our principles. And when they see a country that stands for the things they believe in and does the things they admire, they want to work with that country. They want to be our partners. That’s why our vision is essential to our security—because nobody will follow you if you don’t know where you’re going.
That’s the issue. Our friends think we’re adrift, and our rivals think we’re sinking. Our credibility is at risk, and with it our security.
So our job, as I see it, is to rebuild our credibility—both our resources and our reputation. We have to develop the full range of our power. And yes, that means we have to develop our military. But we shouldn’t be quick to use it. Teddy Roosevelt didn’t say, “Throw a few punches every now and then just to keep them guessing.” He said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick”—because, in a dangerous world, we have to be smart, steady, and at all times clear.
We have to convince our friends—and our rivals—that we are strong. And the most compelling arguments are acts, deeds, concrete achievements. So today I want to propose a strategy for the 21st century—what I’d like to call a strategy for renewal. To rebuild our credibility, we have to renew three sources of our strength: our allies, our military, and our economy.
First, we need to strengthen our allies. We can’t just tell them to do more—we have to help them do more, especially given the dangers we face. Today, the terrorist threat is both direct and diffuse. Over the last three years, RAND estimates the number of hostile militants has doubled. Al Qaeda and its fellow travelers are in nooks and crannies all around the world. And all too often they hide in the shadows of their state sponsors. We should be ready to use every weapon in our arsenal to root them out: drone strikes, direct strikes, economic sanctions. And we should deny weapons of mass destruction to their state sponsors.
But the fight against terrorism is global in scope. We can’t fight it alone. We need partners—starting with Afghanistan. On 9/11, it was a terrorist hotbed. Today, it’s a fragile democracy. But our commanders on the ground have said our gains aren’t guaranteed. And yet the president has said he will pull every single one of our troops out by 2016—end of story. In other words, we’ve told our enemies: “Wait us out.”
The commander-in-chief’s focus should be the conditions on the ground. We should bring our troops home as soon as possible—but not before we finish the job. We’ve lost over 6,800 servicemen and women in the War on Terror. And the best way to honor their sacrifice is to complete the work they started.
No country can lean on us forever. But the Afghan people are trying to stand on their own. And we should help them to their feet. The Afghan security forces are now over 300,000 strong. With our help, they’re learning how to provide air cover and gather intelligence. If they stick it out, they will deny a sanctuary to al Qaeda. And if we stick it out, we will secure a valuable ally.
Now, Afghanistan is just the most obvious example. We have to work better with all our allies—all around the world.
In Western Europe, we have to strike a balance. Our friends can’t depend on us for all their defense needs. And we can’t dictate to them all their defense policies. Every member of NATO has pledged to spend at least 2 percent of its economy on defense. But only three countries do—Britain, Greece, and us.
That said, we can’t just tell the others to pony up. It’s not just how much they’re spending—but how they’re spending it. We have to convince them to build a coordinated set of capabilities—a set of tools that together will help secure our shared interests. For instance, we need their help in protecting all of us from the threat of ballistic missiles and cyber warfare.
Now in Eastern Europe, we can’t leave our friends in the lurch. Russia is flexing its muscles these days, and our allies are understandably concerned. We need to make clear that the NATO pledge to common defense isn’t some paper promise. It’s an iron-clad commitment. I’d say the European Reassurance Initiative was a step in the right direction. But we also need to start talks with our allies, so we can strengthen NATO’s permanent military presence on its eastern frontier. Our friends stood with us in Iraq and Afghanistan. We need to stand with them in their hour of need.
Now, there’s another area that demands our attention—and that’s Asia. I recently went on a trip to Japan, South Korea, and China. And it was clear in our conversations they’re a little skeptical of our commitment to the region. We supposedly made a “pivot” to Asia, but we didn’t leave much of a footprint. The numbers speak for themselves: Just under 3,000 Marines are on rotation in Australia. Just four littoral combat ships are to be based in Singapore. With numbers like these, our allies wonder, if they’re in a pinch, will America be there?
They need a reason to believe. And there’s no better reason than the U.S. Navy. If we refuel the U.S.S. George Washington, we can keep eleven aircraft carriers in the fleet. And that way, we will have about three carriers—including the carrier stationed in Japan—forward-deployed at all times.
Whether in Europe or Asia—in Africa or Latin America—we have to strengthen the ties that bind. And I mean all those ties—economic ties, political ties, cultural ties—anything that aligns our interests and promotes a common worldview.
Both our interests and our principles are important—because if we pursue one at the expense of the other, we may end up with neither. For instance, the president has recognized a new Palestinian Authority government that includes Hamas, an unapologetic terrorist organization. We’ve undermined our ally Israel on a key issue, and that makes them only less likely to trust us. If we want to strengthen our allies, the first thing we need to do is strengthen their trust.
And if we want to lead our allies into the 21st century, then we need a military that’s ready for the 21st century. So the second thing we need to do is rebuild our military.
Today, we lead the pack. But our rivals are gaining ground: Last year, Russia increased military spending by 4.8 percent. And China? By 7.4 percent. And us? Well, if we passed the President’s proposed budget, the Army would shrink to its smallest size since World War II . . . the Navy to its smallest size since World War I . . . and the Air Force to its smallest size ever.
Every year he cuts so deeply—and so unevenly—that he’s hurting both our current and our future capabilities. Today, if a major threat arose, only a handful of Army brigades would be ready to deploy. That’s not much of a deterrent. We may have both too little today and far less tomorrow.
Now, I voted for the Budget Control Act—because I thought it would force us to fix our entitlements. But the other side refused. And so the little progress we’ve made against the deficit has come, at least in part, at the expense of our national security. That’s why I negotiated last year’s budget deal—so we could stop the arbitrary cuts to our defense—because the fact is, we need a big upgrade. Today, we’re living off the defense build-up of the Reagan years. In the ’90s, we cashed in the peace dividend. And over the last decade, we’ve acquired some new capabilities, but they won’t be all that useful against the challenges of the future.
Now, government isn’t the most efficient thing in the world. And the Defense Department is no exception. Our equipment is the best out there. But we’re spending too much money and waiting too long to get it. Over the past few years, we’ve canceled nearly every major Army procurement program. We’ve scrapped big parts of the Navy’s modernization plans. And we’ve scaled back procurement of air superiority fighters. We’re just starting to revamp the procurement process, and we can’t let up.
More of the same old equipment won’t do. The times call for a new set of capabilities—like directed-energy weapons and advanced missile defense. These tools will help us maintain the qualitative advantage that has set us apart. But the times also call for a new way of thinking. We have to remember the lessons of counterinsurgency. And we have to prepare for the next generation of threats. Many countries want to restrict our access to the global commons, whether in the Pacific littoral or cyberspace. The threats have changed, and we will have to change with them.
And if we want to meet those threats, we also will have to spend more on defense. But if we just borrow more or raise taxes, we will strengthen one asset by damaging another. So the third thing we need to do is fortify the pillars of the global economy, starting with the main pillar, our economy.
We can’t afford a strong military without a strong economy. We encourage free enterprise abroad, and we could use a little more of it at home. The House Republican budget is full of ideas to rev up economic growth: tax reform, regulatory reform, energy production. But the most important is paying down our national debt.
We can’t be a good neighbor if we’re not the master of our own house. To us, the debt is a liability. To our rivals, it’s leverage. And to our friends, it’s demoralizing. It’s hard to trust a country that’s maxed out its credit cards and taken out a third mortgage. And remember: We issue the world’s reserve currency. That’s a great privilege—one the world thinks we’re abusing. So it’s pretty simple: The greatest threat to American leadership is our national debt.
Today, the world is wondering, do we know how to balance our budget? Do we know how to grow our economy? And the answer has to be a firm, unmistakable yes. That means we have to take on the drivers of our debt. We have to reform our entitlements. If we passed the House Republican budget, we’d strengthen Medicare by giving seniors more choices. We’d pay down our debt. And we’d give job creators the certainty they need. By 2024, economic output would be unmistakably higher—by about $1,100 per person.
And here foreign policy can work hand in hand with domestic policy. If we took full advantage of our shale energy, we’d not only boost our economy—we’d help protect our allies from energy blackmail. We know what to do: Step up our natural-gas exports. Increase production on federal lands. And resist the temptation to over regulate.
But there’s another pillar that needs tending. And that’s China. I could think of no better testament to the potential of free enterprise. And after years of isolation, we welcomed the Chinese people into the world economy. But with its new power, China isn’t trying to bend the rules—it’s trying to rewrite them altogether. It’s stealing our intellectual property. It’s attacking our companies. It’s promoting crony capitalism. In a narrow-minded pursuit of its narrow self-interest, China isn’t trying to uphold market principles but to upend them.
So this is the message we want to get across: The market economy works for us; it can work for them too. And it doesn’t pay to break the rules. Many of China’s neighbors, like Vietnam and Malaysia, can’t stand up to China on their own. But if we pull them together, we can hold China accountable. And the hope, ultimately, is to pull China in too.
A good way to start is trade. The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership would reassure our friends in Eastern Europe. And the Trans-Pacific Partnership would reassure our friends in Asia. And as we draw our friends closer in a time of danger, we’d put our rivals on notice: There are costs to confrontation—and benefits to collaboration.
We can’t withdraw from the world. We have to stay engaged. And if we have to stay engaged abroad, then we have to take care of some business at home. That’s why we have to renew the sources of our strength—to pursue a strategy for renewal.
After a decade of war, our country is a little skeptical about the world and its needs. And that’s more than understandable. That said, I think we need to clear something up: American leadership doesn’t demand a more militarized foreign policy, but a more creative one.
Remember: In 1948, the Soviet Union cut off our access to West Berlin. And how did Harry Truman respond? He didn’t tell our troops to shoot their way through. He didn’t blink either. Instead, he ordered the largest humanitarian effort in our military’s history—a massive airlift to give the people of Berlin food, fuel, and other supplies. He didn’t go to war—he didn’t have to. We showed strength, and our rivals showed respect. That’s the kind of mindset we need today.
You know, Jack Kemp used to say he wasn’t a hawk—he was a heavily armed dove. That’s what I’d like to think I am—and what we all are. We prepare for war so we can keep the peace. We constantly renew our strength so we don’t have to use it. And through it all, our goal is a safe and free America in a safe and free world.