M. Spencer Green/AP

M. Spencer Green/AP Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on May 6, 2014.

Hagel Warns Against Isolationism

Answering a weary public, Defense Secretary Hagel called for robust international engagement and U.S. military leadership in his Chicago speech. By Kevin Baron

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel offered perhaps his most forceful justification for maintaining robust American military power and global engagement in the face of public pressure to pull back from global affairs, arguing in a major speech that United States national security requires strong military and non-military leadership abroad.

Hagel’s remarks come as a recent Wall Street Journal poll found Americans increasingly want their government focused more on domestic issues and less on foreign entanglements. Nearly half of those surveyed said the U.S. should play less of a role in the world. Hagel, the defense secretary who was a sergeant in Vietnam, opposed the Iraq war as a Senate Republican and advocated for strong alliances against the grain of his own party, rejected that trend and laid out three priorities: protecting military personnel from budget pressures, investing in a new era of military capabilities and deepening partnerships and military relations with other nations.

“Although Americans today are increasingly skeptical of foreign engagement and global responsibilities, it is a mistake to view those responsibilities as a burden or as charity,” Hagel said, at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “Let us remember that the biggest beneficiaries of American leadership and engagement in the world are the American people.

“Turning inward, history teaches us, does not insulate us from the world’s troubles. It only forces us to be more engaged later – at a higher cost in blood and treasure, and often on the terms of others. This is perhaps more true than ever in today’s globalized world. Walking away from the world, and our relationships, is not an option for the United States of America.”

Hagel blamed Congress for a political and budget environment he said neither he nor President Barack Obama wanted. “But the scale and pace of the budget cuts we’ve experienced in recent years have been made more severe, and more abrupt, because political gridlock in Congress triggered steep automatic cuts to the President’s budget request by way of sequestration … an irresponsible deferral of governing responsibility,” he said.

The age of terrorism is not going away with the decade of large-scale land wars, he said, so the Pentagon must maintain the special operations forces personnel, weapons and skills built up during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, while shifting into cyber and modern threats like climate change. With budget constraints, he said, Pentagon leaders cannot keep every aircraft, weapon and ship. Hagel again tried to offer reason behind his choices, from keeping the F-35 program alive to killing the popular A-10 close air support aircraft.

“These decisions were difficult, but they were based on real-world needs and strategic imperatives. We cannot afford to keep all of our platforms. We must prioritize for our future requirements. It won’t be easy; it won’t be popular… but given our continued budget restraints and uncertainties, we have no choice.”

Pivoting to partnerships, the secretary said military personnel will continue to engage with foreign militaries, citing state National Guard’s long-term relations with specific countries, humanitarian assistance abroad, and deeper involvement in military institutions like NATO, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, and the Mideast’s Gulf Cooperation Council.