Editor’s Note: Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld received the 2007 Claremont Institute’s Statesmanship Award in honor of Sir Winston S. Churchill on November 17, 2007, and delivered the following remarks (as released by the secretary, exclusively to National Review Online).
This past year has certainly provided ample entertainment for those interested in politics. The activities of Congress and the unexpected blessing of an extra year of presidential campaigning fill our newspapers, televisions, and blogs. The problem is that this entertainment tends to focus on the petty and the personal, and seems to avoid a serious discussion of the emerging challenges our country and the next president, Republican or Democrat, will face in the coming four years. This evening I want to talk a bit about some of those challenges in this still young and uncertain century.
The statesman we honor this evening knew a thing or two about challenges. He also knew something about the capacity of the people of the United States to overcome them. In 1946, Winston Churchill traveled halfway across the continent with President Harry Truman to Fulton, Missouri — in America’s heartland — to warn of an unpleasant truth: that the great burdens of leadership in a new, emerging struggle with the Soviet Union would fall to the United States.
It is instructive to recall that Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” remarks were roundly condemned as needlessly provocative in certain important quarters. Stalin declared Churchill a “warmonger,” who, like Hitler, sought to impose a “racist,” “imperialist” agenda. U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes and his undersecretary, Dean Acheson, refused to attend an event in Churchill’s honor some days after the speech. The Chicago Sun called Churchill a “blinded aristocrat… marching to the world’s most ghastly war.”
Only nine months prior to his remarks at Fulton — even before guns had fallen silent in the Pacific — British voters, weary of war, had unceremoniously ousted their great leader from office. After six years of conflict, millions of Europeans were left impoverished. Americans mourned the 300,000 of our own who perished on the battlefields of Europe and North Africa, and on the islands of the Pacific. Recovery from the recent war — not confrontation in a new war — was the desire and indeed, the imperative of the day.
Thoughtful people do not relish the prospect of conflict. Indeed, Americans have assumed the responsibilities of global leadership more reluctantly than any people in history. Today is no different. But the challenges and threats in clear view now — in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere — cannot be ignored, wished away, or turned from any more today than in 1946.
Again the United States and her allies in the free world are engaged in a struggle that will likely test the patience and resolve of free people for many years, if not decades to come.
Ours is a globe speckled with violent extremists, rogue regimes, ungoverned areas, weapon proliferators, and aspiring despots seeking to turn democratic nations into personal fiefdoms. And on that note, one can’t help but applaud King Juan Carlos of Spain for his recent blunt advice to Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. One would think that the damage being done in Venezuela would be of interest to our country. The constitution of Venezuela is being torn up piece by piece, yet how little we hear about it in the press.
Today’s emerging threats create a new array of problems — problems considerably more complex and less predictable than during the bipolar period of the Cold War. In the 21st century, the lines between nation-states and non-state entities, secular and religious groups, and sectarian factions can blur. Unlike the Cold War, these enemies are not a part of any formal pact, alliance or axis. They do not possess traditional armies, navies or air forces capable of winning even a single battle against the most formidable fighting force the world has ever seen — the United States military.
We have entered a period in which those seeking to engage the United States wisely avoid direct military conflict, and instead resort to asymmetric warfare and irregular conflict — through proxies, terrorist attacks against soft targets, and most certainly cyber warfare. Though U.S. generals on the ground have seen some positive signs recently, they advise that by providing arms to sectarian proxies, Iran has been working to destabilize a newly democratic Iraq. And should the Iranian regime obtain a nuclear weapon, most would probably agree that it could inject a dangerous instability into the region.
This is a time in which warfare is being waged in the realms of space and cyberspace. In China, the recent test of an anti-satellite missile has shown that our network of satellites could be vulnerable to an attack that could cripple both U.S. military and civilian communications. Small bands of organized hackers earlier this year demonstrated by their attacks on Estonia, that the governments and financial institutions of advanced nations can be paralyzed through cyber attacks.
These enemies have learned a crucial lesson about warfare in the 21st century — a lesson others seem slow in understanding. Today’s conflicts are not only won on the battlefield, but through the use of websites and blogs, over the airwaves and on the front pages of our newspapers. Through skillful propaganda operations, the enemy successfully leverages their asymmetric attacks to encourage potential recruits to join their violent cause and to try to convince those of us in free nations to give in to hopelessness, self-doubt and despair.
Their decentralized networks have been able to effectively employ the tools of the Information Age, while the U.S. government remains ponderous, muscle-bound and unable to respond in real time to the deceits of these enemies.
To succeed in this first struggle of the 21st century, we will need fresh thinking and capabilities well beyond the Defense Department. If free people are to meet the challenges posed by what will be a long struggle against violent extremists, we will need all elements of national power, private as well as public — diplomatic, economic, as well as intelligence and military to work in concert. We will need to rethink and rearrange our domestic and global institutions designed for the Industrial Age to better suit the Information Age.
The United States cannot fashion effective approaches to challenges of the 21st century alone. The threats to global security — weapons proliferation, terrorism, drugs, trafficking in persons, to name a few — cannot be solved by any single nation. Responsible free nations will need to come to grips with the new and unfamiliar and, and with the U.S., develop new approaches that are effective, congenial to our domestic audiences, and mutually reinforcing.
Fashioning global strategies and institutions for the new and unfamiliar is, after all, what defines statesmanship. In the first years of the Cold War, Winston Churchill and President Harry Truman, persuaded their skeptical publics that the threat posed by the Soviet Union would require bold leadership, new institutions and broad international support. For Truman’s part, within months of Churchill’s speech at Fulton, his administration sponsored the Marshall Plan, promulgated the Truman Doctrine, developed the strategy of containment, and led in fashioning the institutions necessary for the free world to prevail against Communism.
At home, the Truman administration reached across the aisle to Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan and other Republicans to create the Department of Defense, Radio Free Europe, the CIA, the National Security Council. Globally, Truman and his administration built an international consensus and worked with our allies to fashion the United Nations, NATO, the World Bank, and the IMF, to mention a few.
But nothing is forever. However valuable in the past, the institutions of the post-World War II period — Industrial Age institutions — have not adapted sufficiently to keep pace with the decentralized networks of the thinking enemies we face today, now well into the Information Age.
As the Goldwater-Nichols legislation of 1986 helped moved the branches of the U.S. military toward joint warfighting, the broader federal government may well need a similarly ambitious transformation of non-defense institutions and cultures.
A few examples of how current U.S. governmental arrangements fall short. The old distinctions between war, peace, intelligence, diplomacy, and reconstruction — and the corresponding roles of the various government departments and agencies — simply do not reflect current needs. The U.S. military cannot lose a battle, but it cannot alone win the war, absent significant non-military support and skill sets. We may need to adjust federal promotion policies and training priorities to create a deployable cadre of international experts in police, justice, border patrols, education, diplomacy, agriculture, and economics that can be available as needed.
The president and the executive branch currently lack the authority and the flexibility to select the most appropriate instrument of government for a given challenge, region or country. Separate budgets, jealously guarded by dozens of turf-conscious Congressional subcommittees, do not permit Executive agencies and departments the flexibility needed to achieve unity of action.
The current federal budget cycle requires three years for a program to be developed, proposed, authorized, funded and executed. A world that moves that slowly is long a thing of the past.
Internationally, instead of relying solely on institutions that deal only with governments — USAID, the IMF, and World Bank — more agile, market-oriented financial approaches will need to be fashioned to help needy people move into the global economy. For example, through micro-loans, opportunity can — and is — being delivered directly to individuals, thereby bypassing the corruption seemingly so prevalent in the governments of poorer nations.
Recall what Churchill told the audience at Fulton about the United Nations: He said, “We must make sure that its work is fruitful, that it is a reality and not a sham, that it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words.” I am afraid that a “force for action” is not a phrase that leaps to mind when thinking of the U.N. today. It is an institution where Sudan is elected to the Human Rights Commission; Iran is elected vice-chairman of the Disarmament Commission; Syria is elected vice president of the IAEA Committee; and Zimbabwe is elected to the Sustainable Development Commission.
Think of it! Such an institution can hardly be seen by objective observers as taking itself seriously. How fortunate we have been to have John Bolton serve as our ambassador there.
To assist in this problem, we should work with NATO to expand its role, encouraging relationships with other like-thinking countries. We should encourage NATO to develop linkages with other like-thinking nations such as Australia, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea that. A global alliance of free and responsible nations could better focus collective action against the very real and growing threats to the nation-state system.
As we consider ways in which our country and the free world might best tackle the challenges of this first struggle of the 21st century, a dose of humility is in order. There is no “roadmap” to lead decision makers to certain success. There is no “how to guidebook” to tell leaders a sure path ahead. The choices they face are complex and multidimensional.
Ours are new and daunting challenges, to be sure. But danger and uncertainty are not new to the American people. When Churchill spoke at Fulton in 1946 at the dawn of the nuclear age, a nation fatigued from war did not give in to despair. Nor did the deadliness of new atomic weapons weaken America’s resolve.
By the visionary leadership of a president and a former prime minister, a sense of urgency was rekindled in our country and among our allies in those early days of the Cold War. President Truman, the architect of the Cold War institutions that endure to this day, knew that the burdens of global leadership would be difficult and costly. Recall that President Truman led troops into a conflict on the Korea Peninsula from which 36,000 Americans never returned home. President Truman’s approval rating fell to 24 percent — the lowest in history.
I remember being in South Korea a few years ago, and looking out over the lights of the city of Seoul at night. A young journalist walked up to me with a microphone. She said, “The South Korean parliament is currently debating whether to send South Korean troops to Iraq. Why in the world should young Korean people go halfway around the world to fight and possibly die?”
South Korea has the same people and resources as North Korea. Yet today South Korea is one of the most successful economies on the face of the earth. It is a success because of its free people and free economic system. And so I told the journalist, “Why should young Americans have come to South Korea, halfway around the world, to fight and potentially die fifty years ago? The answer is that you only need to look out the window.” South Korea is fortunate that the United States and a coalition of willing nations fought on the Korean Peninsula — for South Korea’s freedom — some 50 years ago.
The great statesman we honor tonight understood that leadership was not for the meek or faint of heart. He knew that there were bound to be tough decisions, mistakes and setbacks. Even when the outlook was the bleakest, as at the Dardanelles in World War I and at Dunkirk in World War II, Churchill was not deterred by his many critics in the press or by the vocal opposition and political opportunists in the Parliament.
It is, to be sure, easy to give in to the pessimism and cynicism of the day — to sit on the sidelines and criticize. It seems that in today’s society, it can even be fashionable to blame ourselves. But, contending that America and her allies are the source of the world’s problems — that it is America that has brought terrorist attacks on our country — is as reckless and ill-founded today as it has been in the past.
The decision facing America and the world’s democracies in the months and years ahead is the choice between acknowledging the determination of those who choose to be our enemies and treating them as they have chosen to be treated — or leaving them free to fight another day, at any place and time of their choosing.
It is the choice between rearranging our domestic and international institutions to meet the threats of the 21st century, or thinking we can safely drift along and leave those tough challenges for future generations.
It has always been tempting to seek a path of least resistance. But leadership is not about doing what is easy or what is popular. It is about doing what is right — even when it is hard. Especially when it’s hard.
Victory in our current struggle is by no means assured. Victory is to be earned by a people who believe that theirs is a nation worth defending and theirs is a cause worth advancing.
These enemies believe that Americans will give up and give in. Indeed, they are counting on it. But they underestimate the steel of the American people and the dedication of thousands who have stepped forward, raised their hands, and volunteered for military service. These young men and women make up the best trained, best equipped, and most experienced military force in history. They understand the difficulty of the mission they have been assigned, and they are tackling that mission with skill, dedication and patriotism. We should be forever grateful for their spirit and courage, for their sacrifice, and for the sacrifice of their families.
If there is any doubt of our country’s ability to muster the resolve and the grit that will be necessary to defeat our enemies, one only need to look to the American men and women in uniform. As we observed on Veteran’s Day earlier this week, America has persevered over the decades because of those Americans of conviction who served in generations past.
I have no doubt but that this generation will persevere as well, never forgetting that the great sweep of human history is for freedom — and that we are on freedom’s side.