Thank you to the Reagan National Defense Forum for honoring me this evening with the Peace Through Strength Award. I have had the privilege of attending nearly every event since 2013, and have always found the discussions to be marked by thoughtfulness and insight, and not partisanship. Previous award recipients include two of the most dedicated Senators I’ve had the privilege to work with on the Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin and the current Chairman, Senator John McCain. So I am humbled to be here tonight. Or, as Senator McCain would point out: how could someone without a college education receive such an award?
It is also an immense honor to be alongside Secretary George Shultz, who played a monumental role in guiding U.S. foreign policy at the height of the Cold War. Starting as a United States Marine, later as the head of the Office of Management and Budget and Secretary of Treasury under the Nixon Administration, and then as President Reagan’s Secretary of State for nearly 7 years, he has been an inspiration to all who seek to serve.
The profound sense of duty, dignity, and decency that both President Reagan and Secretary Shultz brought to their service contributed to their success. They invested their offices with respect and, in turn, they received the respect and admiration of their countrymen and the world. Their example is more important today than at any time in our history.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of President Reagan’s famous speech in Berlin in which he challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall dividing East and West. What lessons can be drawn from that historic address in 1987?
First, President Reagan clearly understood the importance of principled U.S. leadership in the global competition between free societies and the forces of domination and destruction. In this struggle, the United States served as the guardian of a rules-based international order that kept the peace since the end of World War II.
In Berlin, President Reagan stressed that our values as a free society are a source of American strength. He was well aware that his audience was on both sides of the Wall, and he appealed to the universal desire for freedom. He said, “We believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace.”
President Reagan also understood that the United States is stronger standing with our allies and partners. He remarked that by standing firm together, the Western nations had forced the Soviets back to the negotiating table after they had walked away years earlier. President Reagan spoke of a “community of freedom,” and warned that the Soviet Union could either join or end up becoming obsolete.
Finally, President Reagan understood the importance of balancing a strong defense with our commitment to promoting peace. In Berlin, President Reagan said “we must maintain defenses of unassailable strength. Yet we seek peace; so we must reduce arms on both sides.” This reflects the same wise advice given by Secretary Shultz to the Senate Armed Services Committee a few years ago, when he advised that we needed to be realistic and strong, and then “don’t be afraid to engage with your adversaries, but do it on your [own] agenda and from your strengths.”
President Reagan was not afraid to pursue diplomatic efforts to promote peace and lessen the nuclear threat. As a result of this vision, President Reagan cultivated a relationship with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev across four summits in Geneva, Reykjavik, Washington and Moscow. The Reagan-Gorbachev diplomacy laid the groundwork for unprecedented arms control agreements.
The wisdom of President Reagan’s words are as compelling today as they were 30 years ago.
Today, we confront a security challenge in Europe that many hoped had disappeared forever with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Kremlin is seeking to re-write the end of the Cold War. Its seizure of Crimea is the first re-drawing of international boundaries in Europe by military force since the end of World War II. A revanchist Russia is modernizing its military and using hybrid warfare, propaganda, and subterfuge to undermine Western institutions, divide the alliance, and coerce its neighbors.
The Kremlin has targeted democracy in the United States and across Europe. While recognizing that Russia cannot defeat the United States and its allies militarily, Putin has weaponized information, using cyber hacking, bots, trolls, and disinformation, to launch attacks against the key institutions of our free societies, including our elections. Today, unlike during President Reagan’s day, American institutions have let down their guard against foreign, state-produced propaganda and fake-news. And we have not yet seen leadership emerge from this Administration to push back against these Russian malign influence activities.
Russia is just one of a number of actors seeking to fracture the existing international order and exploit these rifts for their own gains. North Korea threatens stability in the Pacific with its nuclear saber-rattling; China inhibits freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and coerces its neighbors economically; Iran has worked to destabilize the Middle East and supports the murderous Assad regime in Syria; and non-state actors like Al Qaeda and ISIS commit horrific violence in the name of a distorted ideology across the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere.
In light of these unprecedented and complex challenges, how do we ensure the cause of peace going forward?
First, we need to remain resolute in support of our fundamental American values. No one was more resolute than Ronald Reagan. We must be equally firm in advocating the principles of respect for human dignity, democracy, and the freedom of sovereign nations to choose their own paths. We must reject foreign propaganda that asserts a moral equivalency between Western democracies and autocratic states. Our military men and women pledge to defend America and its values with their lives. We need to speak clearly in support of those values.
Second, ensuring the cause of peace requires that our military remain strong, as President Reagan so often reminded us. A credible, capable military is necessary to convince our adversaries that they are better off choosing peaceful engagement over confrontation. However, this will not be achieved on the cheap and should not be put on a credit card. The mindless budget cuts of the last several years under the Budget Control Act and sequestration have harmed our military readiness, prevented needed investments, and delayed needed adjustments to our force structure. The results have been costly and, in some cases, tragic. We must recognize our duty to fully support our military personnel, both during their service and for the decades after they return to civilian life.
Third, we must stand with our allies and partners in opposing foreign efforts to undermine the international order. We must assure the world that we will uphold our alliance pledges, including under Article 5 of the NATO treaty and our commitments to Japan and South Korea.
Fourth, ensuring peace requires that our military strength is matched by diplomatic capabilities, a lesson both President Reagan and Secretary Shultz demonstrated in words and deeds. Unfortunately, within the past year, we’ve seen the decimation of the leadership ranks at the Department of State, and this must stop. If we are going to ask our men and women in uniform to take military action, and our allies to stand with us in conflict, we must first be able to assure them that we have exhausted every diplomatic avenue for peace.
Finally, we are stronger as a nation when we come together in a bipartisan way to tackle our major foreign policy and national security challenges. Despite the ever-growing partisanship, we must continue to work to restore civility and respect to our public discourse. Under Senator McCain’s leadership, Congress last month passed for the 56th year in a row the National Defense Authorization Act. This unparalleled record of success reflects a longstanding bipartisan commitment to support our military and offers an example for Congress to work together on other issues.
The American public needs to recognize that our national security and the integrity of our democracy depend on building our resilience against those who seek to exploit our differences to weaken our nation. This is not a Republican or Democratic issue; it is an issue of national security. Ultimately, our strength lies in our ability to engage with each other respectfully and honestly and work for the common good.
Although President Reagan and I could never be mistaken for one another—I, for one, am a man of normal height, and he was unusually tall—we are both Irish. And, I believe President Reagan would share my appreciation for the words of another Irishman, the renowned poet Seamus Heaney, who wrote:
History says, don't hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
Three decades ago, hope and history rhymed. If we remain true to our principles and ideals, hope and history will rhyme once again in our lifetimes.