Advice for the Next Secretary of Defense
Our most serious threats are not external. Biden’s team also must address the bitter polarization of our politics, which has divided our country and global institutions.
President-elect Joe Biden will inherit the widest, deepest agenda of challenges since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Central to those challenges is COVID and all its societal and economic consequences. Right next to it is the bitter polarization of our politics which has divided our country.
The fracturing of America is endangering the world. This breakdown in trust and confidence in our leaders and institutions has paralyzed our nation. It has produced the collapse of America’s unity and purpose that has inhibited wise, steady, competent leadership and decision making, both domestically and internationally.
The next secretary of defense and his team — and America’s national security enterprise — will be at the center of these challenges at home and abroad. But military and cyber attacks from foreign adversaries are not America’s only threats. Our most serious threats are internal, not external. Politically inspired armed insurgents, extremists, fascists groups and other active destructive forces are now part of the American landscape, as we saw in last week’s attack and occupation of America’s symbolic cradle of our democracy, the Capitol Building. Much of this is fueled by the breakdown in our civility, trust in each other and institutions, narrow parochial interests, and polarization and divide. These are the real threats to our country.
Americans also have pulled back from post-World War II global leadership. Yet, that role has served the world well and has been particularly important and beneficial for America. The United States must again re-engage and lead. Americans must. Biden’s team must reassure our allies, partners and friends that we can be trusted and counted on. They must rebuild and strengthen alliances with diplomatic, military, economic, scientific, trade, and intelligence sharing — common interests for all nations.
The secretary of defense will need to play an integral role in this effort. The strength and legitimacy of the Biden administration’s work will come from honest, clear, and competent leadership, national will, and purpose. If that national will and unity of purpose is lacking and we continue along this disastrous path of self-inflicted decline, we will fail our country and the world. The world will become a dangerous, volatile, and unpredictable universe of 7 billion global citizens. In many respects, we could see a return to a modern day version of the pre-World War II world. A cursory review of the first half of the 20th Century reminds us of the historic horrors visited on the world, when there was less international cooperation and fewer coalitions of common interest like the United Nations, NATO, World Trade Organization , World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and dozens of international development banks and institutions. Our national security leaders must play a role in this critically important task of helping stabilize our country and the world, not by force or bully pulpits that declare “America First,” but rather by working closely with the elected representatives of Americans in Congress, international leaders, and global institutions.
Security is an absolute for every nation and cannot be compromised. It is one of the guarantors of freedoms and rights, along with a Constitution and laws, in a democracy. That security is the responsibility of our defense enterprise. And one element of that security is the strength and viability of allies and alliances. The United States military could not project power around the world without our use of allies’ bases and the certainty of alliances. Americans should support the Biden’s national security team’s efforts to rebuild relationships that respect our allies, not bullies them.
There is hope. As a new president and his team take office and prepare to govern at this uncertain and divisive time in our history there are still strong anchors that hold our country together. We possess a living, active Constitution. We are a nation of laws. We are a nation of fair and caring citizens. We can and we do self-correct. We have 27 amendments to the Constitution because we didn’t get it all right the first time; we self-corrected and changed the laws and our system to address inequities and inequalities. We still are striving to do better and fix problems. There is much yet to do. But we have historic capabilities and capacities and the mechanisms to continue to make America more just. Generations of Americans before us have changed the United States and the world for the better. Selfless, purposeful Americans, like the men and women of our armed forces. Like always, our defense enterprise will continue to play a key role in America’s future. Leadership matters. Character matters.
Today, we celebrate the bedrock of democracy: the peaceful transition of power. Congratulations, America.
Chuck Hagel served as the 24th U.S. secretary of defense from 2013 to 2015 under President Barack Obama. He is the only Vietnam veteran and the first enlisted combat veteran to serve as secretary of defense. Previously, he served two terms in the U.S. Senate from 1997 to 20009, as a Republican representing the state of Nebraska.
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