Secretary of Defense Speech

Remarks Honoring Zbigniew Brzezinski with the DOD Distinguished Public Service Award


Good afternoon.  Thank you so much for being here and…joining me in what is a great privilege – and that is to honor one of the finest strategic thinkers and policymakers of our time Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski – or as he is simply known across town and around the world: Zbig.

As we do so, it’s a pleasure to be joined by so many friends, current and former colleagues, and dedicated public servants past and present, including John Hamre, Bob Kimmitt, Paula Dobriansky, and many more.

I also want to welcome Zbig’s family, his wife Emilie and his sons Mark and Ian – thank you all for being here, and for all your support for Zbig over the years.  The United States and the world owe you all a debt of gratitude. 

Today, I present Dr. Brzezinski with DoD’s highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Award, for his contributions to the defense of our great country. 

Now, it might seem odd to some of you that a Secretary of Defense would give the Department of Defense’s highest civilian award to a former Presidential National Security Advisor.  But it should not seem odd at all. 

That’s because this award, here and at this moment, reflects an enduring truth about America’s defense, that it is so vital that we, to whom it is entrusted, must shepherd it across the years from strategic era to strategic era, from domain to domain – not just sea and air and land, but also in cyber, electronic warfare, and space – and from presidential administration to presidential administration, across parties, and across our government. 

In the academy, at the White House, and now at CSIS, Zbig has long understood that the way to do just that is to have a global strategic perspective – one that helps us understand where our challenges today fall in the broad arc of history, and how we can use history’s lessons in today’s strategic environment.  Indeed, Zbig wrote in his 2012 book that “historically, America has shown that it rises to the occasion when challenged.”  But he also pointed out that today’s world and security environment present “far different challenges than those in the past.” 

He’s right on both points.  And with his strategic vision, advice and guidance, and his example on how to further America’s interests and our ideals, the men and women of the Department of Defense are rising to meet the five major, unique, and rapidly evolving challenges we face today.

Indeed, we’re countering the prospect of Russian aggression and coercion, especially in Europe.  We’re managing historic change in the Asia-Pacific – the single most consequential region for America’s future.  We’re strengthening our deterrent and defense forces in the face of North Korea’s continued nuclear and missile provocations.  We’re checking Iranian aggression and malign influence in the Gulf, and protecting our friends and allies in the Middle East.  We’re accelerating the certain defeat of ISIL…destroying it in its parent tumor in Iraq and Syria, and everywhere else it metastasizes around the world, even as we protect our people here in the homeland. 

And, of course, we must continue to be flexible and agile, because, no matter how smart Zbig has been and is, when you look at history, you see that we have an imperfect record when it comes to predicting the future.  So we’re preparing to contend, in addition, with an uncertain future – ensuring that our forces, our technology, our personnel, our training, and our operational concepts are ready for challenges we may not anticipate today.

While we don’t have the luxury of choosing among these challenges, we do have the ability to set our course strategically – so that while the world may be a confused place, we are not confused about our interests and how to protect them.  As we do so, we can learn much from Zbig.  With his one-of-a-kind wit and candor, Zbig has counseled Presidents, influenced global leaders, and educated policymakers throughout his career – including me, over the many years we’ve known each other and particularly during my time as SecDef – on how to cultivate the strategic perspective that he embodies and espouses.

That means keeping the world in synoptic view, seeing all of its parts and problems at once, and using the great physical and moral strengths of the world’s greatest nation wisely, to protect our people and make a better world for our children.  It means knowing which mix of the full range of foreign policy tools – including but not limited to the finest fighting force the world has ever known – is best for a given situation.  And it means keeping ever grounded in our national security interests…they’re our North Star whether in the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific, Europe, or elsewhere.

Zbig has of course seen how dark and dangerous the world can be, particularly during World War II.  And, when in government at another time of global change, competition, and crises, he resolutely helped direct a robust, forward-leaning American foreign policy.  Whether it was confronting Soviet aggression at a time when it was heating up the Cold War, seizing a precious opportunity for peace in the Camp David Accords, or bending the arc of history by normalizing relations with China, Zbig helped keep America safe and put us in the position to continue to do so for decades to come.

Of course, Zbig also knows well how America has long brought light to his own life, to his family, and to the world.  For that reason, Zbig understood – like few other national security professionals – that American foreign policy cannot be driven by interests and security alone.  His former special assistant and one of my predecessors as SecDef Bob Gates has written, Zbig has a “long history of blending tough-minded realism with high-minded idealism.”  That’s because he knew personally what the causes of freedom, human rights, and democracy mean to the people of the world, and thus what they can mean to American policy.

Blending realism with idealism is not always easy.  Indeed, Zbig was called at 3:00AM one night in 1979 and told the Soviet Union had commenced a nuclear attack on the United States with 200 missiles.  He explained years later that he knew, quote, “everybody would be dead in 28 minutes” so he said, “if that was the case, I was going to make sure we had lots of company.”  And with that Zbig, our one-man deterrent, made sure the Strategic Air Command bombers were taking off.  Thankfully, the reported Soviet attack turned out to be incorrect – Zbig was given the right information shortly thereafter, and he made sure to recall the SAC order. 

But with stakes that high, Zbig – and other officials – could be forgiven for focusing on cold calculus, on interests alone.  He’s done that, but doing that alone is a temptation he’s fought against in government and out.  He’s written that the United States must not “subordinate everything else in the world to an exaggerated sense of insecurity.” Instead, “we have to learn to live” in an insecure world with “dignity, with idealism, with steadfastness.”  Zbig has done just that in his own life.

In an interview 25 years ago, Zbig explained that he considered the “highest human achievement” for him was to “accomplish something positive” for America his adopted country, for Poland his native land, “for the free world, and probably for human kind.”  Even after he left government, Zbig was committed to doing so, to combining thought and action, advice and advocacy, writing and lecturing in the hope of doing good and helping push events and decisions in the “right direction.”  Zbig, I think we can all agree you have done just that, and more. 

Because you’ve done so, you’ve helped ensure America has – time and again – risen to the occasion, and that as a consequence millions and millions can get up in the morning, go to school, go to work, live their lives, dream their dreams, and give their children a better future. 

Zbig, today we acknowledge you for your service, your strategic view, and your continued thought and action.  On behalf of the men and women of the Department of Defense, and on behalf of a grateful nation, Zbig, we thank you.

Now, it is my great honor to present the Department of Defense highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Award, to Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski.   

Thank you.