Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks at the Center for Strategic and International Studiesin Washington D.C. on Tuesday.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks at the Center for Strategic and International Studiesin Washington D.C. on Tuesday. DoD Photo by Erin Kirk-Cuomo

Hagel’s Plan for the Military in the Post-War Era

As the nation comes off a 'perpetual war footing,' Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warns against relying too heavily on military might. By Kevin Baron

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in a major speech outlining the breadth of post-war global security responsibilities the United States faces, called for greater use of civilian “instruments of power,” saying the nation should do more to recognize the limits of military force.

Hagel delivered his vision in perhaps the most significant speech of his term in office so far. The former senator and Vietnam veteran came to office with a reputation as a noninterventionist who advocated against the Iraq war. But quickly Hagel has faced a myriad of security challenges from Syria imploding in the Middle East to terrorism seeping into Northern Africa and massive leaks of classified information from the National Security Agency. On Tuesday, Hagel stepped back from those duties to give a lengthy address warning that while the U.S. has yet to determine the limits of its security responsibilities the application of military force must be “used wisely, precisely and judiciously.”

It’s not a new message from a Pentagon chief. Hagel noted that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Republican like Hagel, made a similar call to lesser arms in 2008, right after the height of the Iraq war. But with more distance from Iraq and the end of Afghanistan near, Hagel said the world’s security challenges require renewed commitment to fulfill “the promise of that commission” from Secretary Gates.

“While these challenges are not America’s responsibility alone, they will demand America’s continued global leadership and engagement,” Hagel said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “No other nation has the will, the power, the capacity, and the network of alliances to lead the international community. However, sustaining our leadership will increasingly depend not only on the extent of our great power, but an appreciation of its limits and a wise deployment of our influence.”

“We remain the world’s only global leader. However, the insidious disease of hubris can undo America’s great strengths. We also must not fall prey to hubris.”

Hagel said the U.S. is perhaps too close to the war years to understand or prioritize what security challenges it faces at hand, but that the time has come to  “adapt and adjust” as the nation moves from a “perpetual war footing.”

“As the United States makes this transition to what comes after the post-9/11 era, we are only beginning to see the dramatic shifts underway that will define our future and shape our interactions in the world,” Hagel said. “Not since the decade after World War II has mankind witnessed such a realignment of interests, influences, and challenges.”

One new characteristic to emerge in the post-war years, Hagel argued, was the common threat of terrorism to all nation-states, requiring greater cooperation among friends and adversaries.

“The challenge of terrorism has evolved as it has metastasized since 9/11. This has required and will continue to demand unprecedented collaboration with partners and allies on counterterrorism efforts. Many share a common threat – regardless of state-to-state differences or political ideologies.”

Hagel is a proponent of alliances and has written extensively on the need to find common threads that can connect even Iran to the United States. 

“In the 21st century, the United States must continue to be a force for, and an important symbol of, humanity, freedom, and progress. We must also make a far better effort to understand how the world sees us, and why. We must listen more.”

Hagel lauded the Obama administration’s use of military force to pressure Assad into giving up Syria’s chemical stockpiles, and said a similar nonviolent path still exists for Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.

“In both cases our military power has been an important part of the work to possibly find diplomatic resolutions to difficult and interconnected international problems," Hagel said.

“America’s hard power will always be critical to fashioning enduring solutions to global problems. But our success ultimately depends not on any one instrument of power. It depends on all of our instruments of power.”

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