“America and the World in 2054: Reimagining National Security For a New Era”
BLOOMINGTON, IN – On June 11, 2019, Mayor Pete Buttigieg delivered remarks on foreign policy and national security at the Indiana University Auditorium in Bloomington.
Below is the full transcript of his remarks as delivered:
Thank you, and good morning. I’m delighted to be here. Thank you President McRobbie, Dean Feinstein, and your colleagues for hosting us at Indiana University. And I am particularly pleased to be at a school named for two Hoosiers of global consequence, Lee Hamilton and Dick Lugar. Together, these two giants used their Indiana values to help shape a tradition of American leadership, combining responsibility and restraint with idealism and vision.
Thank you, Congressman, for your introduction. By his mastery of the relationship between serving a home district and addressing the affairs of the world, Lee Hamilton became one of this nation’s most widely respected statesmen. And I’m profoundly appreciative of his encouragement and counsel over the years.
When we first conceived of this speech, we had hoped that Senator Lugar would also be able to join us. And sadly, that was not to be. Like so many who knew him, I am grateful for the time I was privileged to spend in his company. We were from opposite sides of the aisle, but his leadership — from a principled stand against apartheid to a far-sighted focus on nuclear security — was the stuff of true statecraft. And, what’s not to like in a onetime mayor from Indiana who cut his teeth as a Rhodes Scholar and a Navy intelligence officer?
Senator Lugar once mused about the impact of time he spent with his grandchildren, saying, “What’s the world going to look like when they’re of my age? That really does take a huge imagination.”
And it’s with that focus on the future and that spirit of huge imagination—that I’m standing before you.
From the beginning, my campaign for president has been driven by the awareness that we face not just another presidential election, but a transition between one era and another, a fact of which the current presidency is as much a symptom as a cause. I believe that the next three or four years will determine the next thirty or forty for our country and our world.
And in that context, I am thankful for this opportunity to share the worldview that shapes my understanding of foreign policy and national security. I do not aspire to deliver a full Buttigieg Doctrine today. But I will illustrate how my administration would manage global issues. I want to lay out how I believe American interests and American values can be aligned across American relationships, with a view to everyday life in places like my hometown of South Bend.
My central purpose is to argue that the world today needs America more than ever—but only if America can be at her best.
As a mayor from the industrial Midwest, as a product of the 9/11 generation, and as a veteran of the Afghanistan conflict, my own worldview is shaped, predictably, by my life experience.
When I arrived in college in the fall of 2000, scholars were debating whether the end of the Cold War amounted to the End of History. The United States appeared to be the unchallenged leader of a global order, and the new century was expected by many to be peaceful and democratic. By the time I finished my studies in 2007, America was mired in two wars, its respect even among our allies had plummeted, and no one could be certain that the global future would be any better than the past.
I was a sophomore when the towers fell and war came to our generation. I stayed up late debating things like the march toward the Iraq conflict in a student committee room at Harvard’s Kennedy School, unaware that in a dorm across the street a few students were in the early stages of coding a website that would become the engine of the social media revolution. A few years later I would find myself feeling like I was answering for America, for all her gifts and all her flaws, as a student abroad, an American first in Tunisia and then at Oxford at a time when the world was growing skeptical about America’s leadership and credibility. By the weekend of my tenth college reunion, I was at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, the course of my life altered by American foreign policy.
And through it, I’ve seen at home in South Bend, why foreign policy is not a theoretical discussion for the Americans I serve. From send-off ceremonies for reservists about to be deployed overseas, to union meetings of American auto workers making German-branded cars going to Chinese customers from right in our own St. Joseph County, I have seen the local impact of global engagements.
The need for a new foreign policy vision could not be more urgent today. Since the election of the current president, the United States has hardly had a foreign policy at all. And lest that seem like a partisan jab, I should acknowledge that for the better part of my lifetime, it has been difficult to identify a consistent foreign policy in the Democratic Party either.
While the current administration lacks a coherent policy, it does show a pattern—a troubling one—when it comes to its conduct abroad. This administration has embraced and emboldened autocrats, while alienating democracies and allies around the globe. It has undermined America’s alliances, partnerships, and treaties. It has employed tariffs as tantrums, provoked trade wars while disinvesting in the education, health care, and infrastructure fundamental to our nation’s long-term strength. It has set defense spending priorities according to the wars of the past, rather than deterring wars of the future. And it has been hostile to immigration, costing us people and skills we need, while demonizing those who look or pray differently.
The pattern is that decisions are made impulsively, erratically, emotionally, and politically — often delivered by means of early-morning Tweet — with little regard for strategy and no preparation for their long-term consequences.
We need a strategy. Not just to deal with individual threats, rivalries, and opportunities, but to manage global trends that will define the balance of this half-century in which my generation will live the majority of our lives.
We see workers struggling, and inequality growing, amid the uneven impacts of globalization and automation.
We see leaders promise, again and again, to end the forever wars — only to fall short.
We see authoritarianism and crony capitalism on the rise globally, while democratic values are in retreat here at home.
We see a season of largely unchallenged American power transitioning to a period shaped by the competition of newly rising economies.
And all this while our domestic and global institutions become increasingly weakened, paralyzed, and incapable of meeting the challenges we face.
And at the same time — strange as it may seem to speak optimistically about America and the world right now — I have great hope for the possibility that our moment holds.
Across less than one human lifetime, more than a billion people have been lifted out of extreme, grinding poverty. A global class of young entrepreneurs is emerging from Africa to South Asia, while political leaders my age or younger are shaping new political agendas as they lead nations from Central America to Europe.
With the touch of a finger on a screen, dissidents and democrats across the globe have been connected and empowered.
And voices once silenced or shunned–voices of women, religious, and ethnic minorities–have been lifted to demand their rights and rightful place in society.
So, faced with this moment of enormous challenge and great possibility, it is not enough just to say that we won’t conduct foreign policy by tweet. Nor would it be honest to promise that we can restore an old order that cannot, in any case, meet the realities of a new moment. Democrats can no more turn the clock back to the 1990s than Republicans can return us to the 1950s, and we should not try.
Now, much was already broken when this president arrived, and he immediately set about smashing whatever remained. Paradoxically, this opens a unique window in which to grapple with the world as it is in the 21st century—with greater urgency and, in some ways, greater freedom than before.
I often speak of the need for our politics and policies to contemplate the year 2054, the year in which I hope to retire, after reaching the current age of the current president. Thinking about the world three to four decades from now is exactly how we need to compete with countries like China, because that is how they are thinking, planning, and investing.
Now to think this far out in American policy, we have to move beyond the news of the day to our deep, core principles. To cope with enormous change, American foreign policy for the future must be securely grounded in American values, American interests, and American relationships.
First and foremost, values. The greatest strategic advantage for America has always been the fact that our country has stood for values shared by humanity, touching aspirations felt far beyond our borders. However imperfectly, we have represented and defended principles of freedom and democracy that stir human beings wherever they live. And whenever such principles have been vindicated around the world, American strength has grown.
Today we worry about the current administration’s abandonment of the American commitment to promoting democratic values. But just a few years ago, it was Democrats who expressed skepticism as a Republican administration undertook a democracy promotion effort so violent and so misguided that its fallout very nearly made isolationists of my party.
To untangle the consequences of that scrambled period, we must remember that the lesson of the Iraq disaster is not that there is anything wrong with standing for American values, but rather that any action in the name of such values must be strategic, legitimate, and constrained by the premise that we only use force when left with no alternative.
This brings me to the concept of the national interest. As any state does, we advance our own distinct interests—but much depends on the principles we uphold when pursuing them, especially in the case of America.
The next president must set a high bar on the use of force, and an exceedingly high bar on doing so unilaterally. When America acts alone, it can only be because core interests are at stake and because there is no alternative. Notably, this is not currently true of the situation in Venezuela. It is not currently true of the situation around Iran. It is the difference between the necessary response to 9/11 in Afghanistan and the self-defeating invasion of Iraq. It is in short the difference between Normandy and Saigon.
Which brings us to the third pillar of a foreign policy vision: American relationships. Our relationships—bilateral relationships, multinational alliances, international institutions—are the space in which our policy plays out. Each must be strengthened if we wish to promote American values and defend American interests.
With this framework in mind, the tasks for the next president are clear:
First, we must put an end to endless war and refocus on future threats.
Second, we must promote American values by working to reverse the rise of authoritarianism abroad.
Third, we must treat climate change as the existential security challenge that it is.
Fourth, we must update the institutions through which we engage the world to address these 21st-century challenges and opportunities.
And fifth, we must do all this while involving citizens across America in a meaningful conversation about how foreign policy and national security concern their communities, and do more to include their voices and values in formulating our policies.
Not only must America do this in order to prosper, but the world also needs America to do these things.
The world needs an America free from entrapment in endless war and prepared to focus on future threats.
After 9/11, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law an Authorization for the Use of Military Force to eliminate the threat posed by al Qaeda and to attack the Taliban in Afghanistan. That law was barely two pages long, yet it has been used for two decades to wage wars and launch military strikes from the mountains of the Hindu-Kush to the African Sahel.
In mobilizing to meet the extremist threat, we did achieve a measure of military victory. But as the mission drifted, the collateral damage to our national moral authority was enormous, and we far too often bargained against our own values. Congress abdicated its responsibility on issues of war and peace. We spent $4 trillion dollars and lost thousands of American lives–to say nothing of countless civilians caught in the crossfire. I fear that someday soon we may receive news of the first U.S. casualty of the 9/11 Wars who was born after 9/11.
As someone who deployed to that war on the orders of a President–someone who believed, back in 2014, that our involvement in Afghanistan was coming to an end and that I was one of the last to turn out the lights–the time has come for Congress to repeal and replace that blank check on the use of force and ensure a robust debate on future operations.
We should never again send troops into conflict without a clear definition of their mission and an understanding of what will come after. We should never again find ourselves in a situation like we did in 2017, when four U.S. soldiers were killed on a counterterrorism mission in Niger, only to have senators from both parties admit that they didn’t even realize that we had 1,000 troops stationed in that country.
Correcting this is not only a matter of presidential restraint but of renewed Congressional oversight. The time for a Congress asleep at the switch must come to an end. If members of our military can find the courage to deploy to a war zone, then Members of our Congress ought to be able to summon the courage to take tough votes on war and peace.
Now, our military capabilities exist of course, for a reason. We stand ready to use force—under specific, lawful circumstances and when there is no peaceful alternative. I believe we should use force when there is a clear and present threat to the U.S.; when it’s necessary to deter and defend against an attack on or imminent threat against the United States, our citizens at home or abroad, or our treaty allies; and when we act as part of a legitimate international coalition to prevent genocide or other atrocities. But when we must use force, we must also have an end game. Before, during, and after a deployment troops we should also deploy diplomatic, development, and security assistance to guard against future instability.
It is not enough to define what we would not do, or how we would not get dragged in. After all, war itself represents a kind of failure, and true success lies in preventing conflict. This is why we must anticipate and prevent threats around the world in a clear-headed and forward-looking way.
Among the threats to American and human security, nuclear destruction remains paramount. This is why preventing the spread of nuclear weapons should remain a core tenet of our global leadership.
For this reason, I will rejoin our international partners and recommit the United States to the Iran nuclear deal. Whatever its imperfections, this was perhaps as close to a true “art of the deal” as it gets. As even this Administration repeatedly certified, it was preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It has helped constrain the military threat that Iran poses to Israel and Europe without leading us down a path to another Middle Eastern war. This agreement was concluded not to do Iran a favor, but because it is in our national security interest—just as a parallel policy of confronting Iran’s support for terrorism and abysmal human rights record reflects our values and security interests.
Now, recommitting to diplomacy with Iran will similarly strengthen our hand in North Korea. For decades, the United States and our allies have successfully deterred North Korean use of nuclear weapons. At the same time, it is also in the interest of regional security to advance peace on the Korean Peninsula. So rather than a zero-sum insistence on full and complete denuclearization before any peace is possible, we can recognize that the two processes can be mutually reinforcing, with small steps leading to bigger ones. You will not see me exchanging love letters on White House letterhead with a brutal dictator who starves and murders his own people. But you will see my administration work to create the conditions that would make it possible to welcome North Korea into the international community. But until we can change the present dynamic–until there are good-faith and verifiable reversals in North Korea’s nuclear program–sanctions must remain in place.
Now, beyond state-sponsored nuclear proliferation, we also face the continued threat of stateless terrorism and extremism at home and abroad. The United States can’t fix every fragile state where extremism might flourish. But with proper legal authorities, we should maintain limited, focused and specialized counterterrorism and intelligence missions in places like Afghanistan, to reduce the likelihood that such places will become launching pads for attacks on the United States or our allies.
We must also be proactive in confronting armed extremist threats at home. In my Navy counterterrorism training, I learned about the ways in which terrorists’ top priority is to become your top priority. So as a nation we have to decide: as we go about our daily lives, what level of risk is acceptable? When it comes to our privacy versus our security, what tradeoffs are we willing to accept? We must be vigilant in protecting our lives from threats posed by terrorists; we must be no less vigilant in protecting our liberties from the threat of being undone by our own hand in times of widespread fear. And achieving such balance will be particularly important when we contemplate the possibility of a major security event between now and the next election.
Knowing that, in the past decade more Americans have been killed in America by right-wing extremists than those inspired by al Qaeda or ISIS, we need to acknowledge this threat too and redirect appropriate resources to combat right-wing extremism and violent white nationalism.
The world needs an America ready to reverse the rise of authoritarianism while revitalizing democracy at home and advancing it among our allies.
Countries with models that fly in the face of our values—from Chinese techno-authoritarianism to Russian oligarchic capitalism to anti-modern theocratic regimes in the Middle East—all present a major challenge to us. And it is no accident that their hostility to shared values comes as they also present a greater threat to our interests.
Ironically, at the very moment when American prestige and respect is collapsing, it has never been more needed that America live up to the values we profess. The world needs the best of America right now.
Now, our approach to each region in the world should be guided by an understanding of our interests that is true to our values.
Take the case of Russia, which we should view not as a real estate opportunity but as a self-interested, disruptive, and adversarial actor. As the most unequal economy of any major power, Russia represents a striking example of what happens when a country attempts to set up capitalism without democracy. And the forces unleashed there—nationalism, xenophobia, homophobia, and the repression of the press–are both highly disturbing in that country and disturbingly ascendant in our own country.
Meanwhile, Russia throws its weight around abroad. Most egregiously of course, their unacceptable interference in our elections which weakened America both by helping to elect an unstable administration and by eroding confidence in our democracy itself. We must be ready to deter such behavior in the future—through diplomatic, economic, and even cyber tools and information operations. But we must also deal with the real weaknesses that the Russians exploited—not just the gaps in our technology but our capacity to be too easily turned against each other. In this sense, domestic problems from racism to social isolation have revealed themselves to be national security vulnerabilities.
We’ve also seen regionally destabilizing Russian behavior, from activities on the Crimean Peninsula and in eastern Ukraine, to conduct with regard to intermediate-range missiles. Future U.S. policy towards Russia must include a regional security framework that promotes stability for Eastern Europe and incentivizes Russia to adhere to international norms. And central to this will be our partnerships—sadly fractured and endangered by this administration but ready to be renewed and reinvigorated. Seventy years after the founding of NATO, we must repair the strained relationships with our European allies—not because we owe them or they owe us, but because America is more effective when we work with strong and able partners, and when those partners can trust America’s word.
In Latin America, too, universal values that we support as Americans are at stake. Casual references to throwing U.S. troops at situations like the crisis in Venezuela will not help. But engagement will. That means adding, not subtracting, to USAID efforts in Central America, so that we can better address the crime, corruption, and poverty that contributes to mass migration in the first place. And it means working closely with Mexico, one of our largest trading partners, knowing how much we have to gain when Mexico is more prosperous and stable. And yes, it means isolating dictatorship and encouraging democracy working in concert with our Latin American neighbors.
On the African continent, the winds of change are sweeping aside old regimes and certitudes. In Algeria, a new generation has risen up against a sclerotic government. In Sudan, women have led a revolt against a criminal one. And in Ethiopia, we have seen what it looks like when hope triumphs over hostility. By 2025, nearly one-fifth of the world’s population will live in the nations of a rising Africa–60 percent of whose people are now under the age of 25. That continent now boasts some of the fastest-growing economies in the world, which have lifted millions out of poverty and into the global marketplace. And as African peoples demand greater accountability and transparency from their leaders, the United States must stand ready to put our values into action, to promote empowerment alongside economic engagement.
From the Arctic to South Asia, American interests will be better served when American behavior aligns with values and norms shared across humanity.
And as we mark the 30-year anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, the challenge of China presents perhaps the most pressing example anywhere of the need to stand for American values amid the rise of a potent alternative.
The Chinese alternative is the international expansion of authoritarian capitalism. As we speak, the Chinese government is developing a repressive digital surveillance state. In Xinjiang, up to 1 million Muslim Uighurs are being interned in so called “re-education camps.” And China is investing more than $1 Trillion in its Belt and Road initiative, expanding its political and economic influence by building infrastructure throughout the Pacific, Europe, Africa, and the Americas, as they happily fill a vacuum left by American withdrawal.
Of course, we can cooperate with the Chinese on areas of mutual interest, from climate disruption, to combatting terrorism to international peacekeeping operations. But we also must be prepared to defend our values, interests, and relationships.
We will not be able to meet this challenge by sticking to a 20th-century strategy. Nor will it suffice to reduce the China relationship to a tit-for-tat trade fight, as if all that matters is the export-import balance on dishwashers. Meeting the challenge of China means we must maintain investments in a military that can deter aggression and adventurism. As with Russia, we also need to invest in strategies to deal with less overt threats—political interference, proxy wars, cyberattacks, and the potential weaponization of economic and technological interdependence.
But beyond that, the new China challenge provides us with an opportunity to come together across the political divide; at least half the battle is at home, enhancing our domestic competitiveness and stability.
The idea that the “American way” is superior will be difficult to authenticate as long as our federal government is liable to shut down over policy disagreements. As long as Congress can’t deliver even on items of consensus among the American people. We will not be very convincing if the world sees China invest more in infrastructure abroad than we are prepared to invest here at home.
We cannot compete for the global economic future if we continue to disinvest in education, infrastructure, health, and technology. If gross inequality and declining social mobility persist in our country, our economic and political system will become less and less respected on the world stage.
Which is why perhaps the single best thing we can do to roll back authoritarianism abroad is to model the strength of inclusive democratic capitalism right here in the United States.
Strength is more than military power—it’s our power of inspiration. At key moments, the world has envied not just our strength but our prosperity, not just our prosperity but our liberty. If we lose that, we lose what makes America exceptional. And I fear we are losing it quickly.
It’s hard to condemn crackdowns on a free press when our President calls our own news media the “enemy of the people.”
It is hard to stand for human rights abroad when we’re turning away asylum seekers at our own borders.
It is hard to promote accountability and the rule of law when foreign governments can curry favor as cheaply as the bill for a few nights’ stay at the President’s hotels and golf courses.
Our legitimacy abroad rests on our democracy at home. So let’s improve and revitalize our democracy with ambitious, structural reforms. Let’s get money out of politics, let’s depoliticize our Supreme Court, and yes, when we’re choosing the leader of our nation, let’s join the ranks of democratic peoples around the world who select their heads of government by counting up all the votes and choosing the person who got the most.
Above all, let’s lead with our values right here at home. President Eisenhower was right to say, “Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America.”
We don’t need a wall from sea to shining sea. What we need is to manage immigration and our border humanely, securely, and effectively.
And at a time when authoritarians see women’s empowerment as inherently threatening and LGBTQ equality as a non-starter, we will leave them behind by embracing the diversity of our stories as a strength.
And when synagogues and mosques have been viciously attacked, let us aspire to the example of New Zealand’s 38-year-old Prime Minister, Jacinda Arden, let us emulate the way in which she reacted to the horrific slaughter — not with walls but with words of welcome, and decisive action.
We model our values at home in order to be convincing around the world. We must also ensure that our relationships around the world reinforce the values that anchor us here at home.
That means upholding our values in dealing not just with our adversaries but with our allies. The Middle East is one of the most important examples of a place where we can and must uphold our values while advancing our interests.
We will remain open to working with a regime like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the benefit of the American people. But, we can no longer sell out our deepest values for the sake of fossil fuel access and lucrative business deals. If we recognize that the torture and execution of dissidents is wrong, then we should have the courage to say that it is wrong on both sides of the Gulf.
The closer an ally, the more important it is that we speak truth to them.
The security and survival of the democratic state of Israel has been and continues to be an essential tenet of U.S. foreign policy, and is very much in our national interest. Which is why neither American nor Israeli leaders should play personal politics with the security of Israel and its neighbors.
Just as an American patriot may oppose the policies of the American president, a supporter of Israel may also oppose the policies of the Israeli right-wing government. Especially when we see increasingly disturbing signs that the Netanyahu government is turning away from peace.
The suffering of the Palestinian people–especially the humanitarian disaster in Gaza–has many authors, from the extremism of Hamas and inefficacy of the Palestinian Authority to the indifference of the international community and, yes, the policies of the current Israeli government. And now, Gaza has become a breeding ground for the kind of extremism that only exacerbates threats to Israel and the region.
Israeli and Palestinian citizens should be able to enjoy the freedom to go about their daily lives without fear, and to work to achieve economic well-being for their families.
As Israel’s most powerful and most reliable ally, the United States has the opportunity to shape a more constructive path, with the tough and honest guidance that friendship and fairness require.
The current state of affairs cannot endure. The pressure of history and the mathematics of demography mean that well before 2054, Israelis and Palestininians will have come to see either peace or catastrophe. A two-state solution that achieves legitimate Palestinian aspirations and meets Israel’s security needs remains the only viable way forward, and it will be our policy to support such a solution actively. And if Prime Minister Netanyahu makes good on his promise to annex West Bank settlements, he should know that a President Buttigieg would take steps to ensure that American taxpayers won’t help foot the bill.
At home and abroad, it is not too late for America to restore her leadership position as a beacon of values that are both universal and at the core of the American project. Democracy, freedom, shared security.
The world does need America to model our values.
And the world needs America to prioritize climate security.
As a mayor who has had to activate my city’s emergency operations center for floods that were supposed to come less than once in a lifetime–and done so twice in two years–I have seen the homeland implications of this threat.
We’ve seen warnings from a generation ago realized today in floods in Indiana, the tornadoes in Alabama, the hurricane in Puerto Rico, and the fires in California.
And despite what we hear from this administration and from far too many Republicans in positions of responsibility, climate disruption is here. It is no longer a distant or theoretical issue, it is a clear and present threat.
And as traditionally conservative sectors from other business community led by the insurance industry to our military leaders repeatedly tell us, climate instability is a threat multiplier. It can accelerate the spread of pandemics, food insecurity, and mass migration. Research even shows a significant link between temperature rise and the frequency of conflict. The balance of my lifetime will play out in an era of climate-driven international instability.
In other venues, I have had more to say about how America can rise to this national challenge. It’s an approach that should include a carbon tax and dividend, to reorient our economy around a more sensible reward system. It includes quadrupling American R&D–to at least $25 billion a year–leading the way on research into renewable energy, energy storage, and carbon storage. But I believe it also means we should empower rural America to be part of the solution–helping to unlock the potential of soil management and other 21st century farming techniques–and we could offer a new kind of support for cities and towns seeking to reduce their dependence on carbon.
But today, I want to emphasize the potential of climate diplomacy, and the kind of world we might build when climate stands alongside democracy and human rights as a central goal, and a source of legitimacy, for nations in global affairs.
Rejoining Paris is just the beginning. As one of over 400 mayors who committed to upholding the Paris goals, and having seen how cities are rising to meet this challenge even as our respective national governments lag behind, I believe the U.S. should foster not only international, but sub-national engagement to meet a challenge whose solutions could be as unifying as its threats are universal. We would do well to host a Pittsburgh Summit of cities to form commitments that will stand alongside the Paris framework among countries.
Building a robust global framework for climate diplomacy is the right thing to do. It also benefits American interests—not only because we all stand to lose from climate disruption, but also because countries that share our values tend to be countries with a better track record on climate.
It is hard to believe that it would be a coincidence that extraction economies and polluting societies are often those with a tendency towards authoritarianism. If we promote democracy we will also be promoting climate action, and vice versa. And by taking seriously the threat of climate disruption, we might go a long way toward improving a climate of global cooperation.
So yes, the world needs America to lead on climate.
And fourth, the world needs America to update the institutions through which we engage with the world, ensuring that they reflect the fact that our world is closer to 2054 than to 1945.
To shape this young century to our advantage, we must renew our national security architecture–our military, certainly, but also our intelligence, communications, diplomatic, and development institutions.
It begins with taking a hard look at our defense.
The U.S. has long sought to maintain total dominance in conventional war. But in the coming decades, we are more likely than ever to face insurgencies, asymmetric attacks, and high-tech strikes with cyber weapons or drones. Yet our latest defense budget calls for spending more on 3 Virginia-class submarines—$10.2 billion—than on cyber defenses. It proposes spending more on a single frigate than on artificial intelligence and machine learning. To adequately prepare for our evolving security challenges, we need to look not only at how much we’re spending on our military but what we’re prioritizing.
And chief among those priorities must be the sacred obligation we have to take care of the men and women who fight our wars. Half our veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have applied for long-term disability benefits.
We owe our veterans the best healthcare, through a strong and modern VA–which demands a significant investment to expand the quality and quantity of mental health treatment available. But caring for our veterans also means helping them and their families return to the normalcy they seek. And that is not just a government responsibility—it’s something all of all of us. Human connection is the most underrated and important component of community reintegration. I’m proud that in South Bend we piloted an initiative to do more than say “thank you for your service,” to do more than offer just another website. Where I live, veterans and their families are not a “problem to be solved” but talent to be competed for. They are engineers, Little League coaches, elected officials–and I want to enlist our communities to help them give of their extraordinary abilities.
Beyond taking a smarter approach to our defense and our care for veterans, we must also rethink our intelligence and communications.
We owe our intelligence community a deep debt of gratitude for the manner in which they stepped up and safeguarded our security in the years since 9/11. But for too long, they have focused on too few threats. In a world where data—and disinformation—dominate, we should revitalize our intelligence services with an investment in new people and a renewed commitment to tools like human intelligence and next-generation information operations.
The same goes for spreading the right kinds of information. It’s not enough to combat falsehoods; we must also disseminate truth. The nation that helped Solidarity rise in Poland to begin the downfall of Communism in Europe has let the tools with which we once spread our message become weak and siloed. It’s time we took an integrated and innovative approach, bridging public and private sectors. International communications must not be a neglected subset of our global engagement; it is a key to helping the world understand who we are and what we stand for.
Ultimately, our national security and foreign affairs strategy will only be as robust and sophisticated as the people we recruit to carry it out. The world is not standing still. To successfully navigate these dynamics and seize new opportunities will require a new generation of Americans–fluent in different languages and cultures, comfortable in a digital world, deeply committed to the American project.
A foreign policy that serves our people in their daily lives can best be made by government officials who represent the full diversity of our people. For far too long, our national security establishment has no reflected this diversity. So we must work to upgrade our hiring practices to promote both diversity and excellence. And no matter where they come from, our finest minds should find it as attractive and compelling to serve in Foggy Bottom, or USAID or Langley as it is to work on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley. We should establish flexible career paths for civilians working in defense, diplomacy, and intelligence, with benefits appropriate for a generation that will change professions more often than my parents’ generation changed job titles.
For those who choose this path, it will not always be easy. Much of this work happens in the most dangerous parts of today’s world. And our foreign service officers and development officials, our intelligence community, must know that Congress and their President have their backs, are committed to their mission, understand and have prepared for the risks and will not abandon them or their mission–nor scapegoat them in congressional investigations–at the first sign of trouble, and will absolutely not use them as political props or pawns.
The world needs America to cultivate a diverse and talented generation of personnel ready to engage globally.
The finally, the world needs America to be in touch with its own communities. A foreign policy for 2054 must be grounded in the everyday lives of communities across the United States.
One thing I’ve learned on the job in South Bend is that all politics is not just local but personal for someone, and global politics is no exception. Yet the discussion, in the media, in the academy, and in official Washington, seems to proceed as if foreign policy were far off in its impact and meaning. One former official recently observed, “when the national-security team sat around the Situation Room table, we rarely posed the question, ‘What will this mean for the middle class?’”
In my White House, we will, because our purposes abroad are rooted in our aspirations at home.
Our innovators are empowered to compete in the global marketplace only if our leaders are relentless in ensuring that intellectual property is protected.
Our workers are empowered to secure their fair share of global economic growth only if workers abroad cannot be stripped of labor rights and forced to produce at unfair wages that undercut American workers.
Our Muslim friends and neighbors are empowered to work, and live, and contribute to our communities only if their government honors their faith.
Decisions made in the White House Situation Room do reverberate throughout America’s living rooms, and every decision concerning the South China Sea should be made through the prism of what it means for a place like South Bend.
In this globalized century, no city–no community–is an island. When a manufacturer announces that this trade war with China could potentially cost the company “hundreds of millions” this year, that matters to the folks who work at their facility on the West Side of South Bend.
Globalization is not going away. So we must insist on policies that ensure that working families in cities like mine can play a more appealing role in the story of globalization than the role of victim.
And we do that by reaffirming our longstanding international tradition, by tapping the cultural richness of our immigrant families, and by harnessing the potential of global markets. We do it by unleashing the full power of the most global institutions on our local soil–colleges and universities like this one, which teaches more languages than any other school in America–training that next generation of global leaders. And we do it by ensuring that our local leaders–our state and local experts, our governors, yes, our mayors–are not bystanders in this dialogue. Whether the issue is climate change or trade or immigration, local leaders should be at the table from the beginning, empowered to speak with our national diplomatic, commercial and military leaders.
To thrive in the coming decades, we must bring the foreign policy conversation out of Washington and into the rest of the country—and bring the rest of the country into the Washington foreign policy conversation.
When I was deployed, living the famous military rhythm of “hurry-up-and-wait,” I spent much more time reading and reflecting than I usually do at home.
I thought about how wars start, how they end—and how, sometimes, they don’t.
I thought about the Australian soldier sitting next to me in the chow hall at Bagram—even though nobody attacked his country on 9/11—because that’s what partners and allies do.
I thought about the diplomats and development workers painstakingly brokering ceasefires and stabilizing war-torn regions; the trade representative somewhere in Geneva whose work would determine whether someone’s job at the tool-and-die factory in St. Joe County goes overseas or whether a community like ours would be able to attract foreign investment.
And after a long day split between processing intelligence at my desk in a modified shipping container, and driving my commander across the hauntingly beautiful and violent city of Kabul, I’d carry a laptop up to the roof at midnight, pick up a Wi-Fi signal, and Skype into a city staff meeting back home in South Bend. That tenuous digital link was a reminder that the counter-narcotics efforts of my threat finance cell ultimately mattered to a community on the banks of the St. Joseph River. That there was a relationship between the city streets I was navigating in an armored SUV in Afghanistan and the ones I was responsible for paving in South Bend.
The world needs America. But not just any America. Not an America that has reduced itself to just one more player, scrapping its way through an amoral worldwide scrum for narrow advantage. It has to be America at our best: the America that possessed the forward-looking vision to do things like confront Nazism and rebuild Europe and even invent the Internet inside a research arm of our Defense Department. It has to be an America that knows how to make better the everyday life of its citizens and of people around the world, knowing how much one has to do with the other.
To do so is to keep our nation safe, it is to master change rather than be made small and fearful by it, it is to see vindicated the values that make our nation what it is, and it is to deserve to be described in terms like “greatness.”
None of us will live to see the end of history. Rather, in our lifetimes, the choices of the generations now living may well fashion more than our share of history. Much will depend on our fidelity to our own values, and we will not have to wait until 2054 to feel the judgment of history on this season, this set of moments on which the trajectory of the American project and so much of the future of the modern world will depend. The world needs America to be the best it’s ever been, and now, it falls to us to set the bearing of our nation. Let us choose well.
Thank you. It’s an honor to be with you. Thank you very much.
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