Secretary of Defense Speech

Remarks Honoring Dr. Henry Kissinger with the DOD Distinguished Public Service Award


Good afternoon.  It’s a great privilege to welcome Dr. Kissinger to the Pentagon and to have so many long-time friends and dedicated public servants and DoD leaders with us today.

Henry Kissinger is, of course, unique in the annals of American diplomacy and there is no need to explain the recognition of his achievements and his thoughts; although I will get to them later.  But, what might seem odd is that a Secretary of Defense is giving the Department of Defense’s highest award to a Secretary of State.  But I believe that this is deeply appropriate given what I also believe is so deeply valuable about the great institution that it is my privilege to lead. 

For our defense is so vital that we have to take the long view and how we shepherd it from strategic era to strategic era, from administration to administration, across parties, and across our government, including the State Department and the National Security Council, which Henry ran in his time. 

And defense requires a strategic perspective – and that requires that we understand our connections to the leaders and challenges of the past. 

Cultivating the strategic perspective Henry Kissinger personifies means keeping the world in synoptic view, seeing all of its parts and problems at once, and using the great physical and moral strength of the world’s greatest nation wisely, to protect our people and make a better world.  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. 

It means understanding where our challenges today fall in the broad arc of history, and how we can use history’s lessons to pursue today’s opportunities.  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.

This perspective and this complexity is something we contend with every day at the Department of Defense, as we face today no fewer than five major, immediate, and evolving challenges: countering the prospect of Russian aggression and coercion, especially in Europe; managing historic change in the vital Asia-Pacific region; strengthening our deterrent and defense forces in the face of North Korea’s provocations; checking Iranian aggression and malign influence in the Gulf; and accelerating the defeat of ISIL in its parent tumor in Iraq and Syria and everywhere it’s metastasizing around the world.

While we do not have the luxury of choosing among these challenges, we do have the ability to set a strategic course for the future: a future that’s uncertain but will surely demand America’s leadership, values, and military strength. 

And while our strategic objectives must be clearly framed, they must also be pursued across the whole of government and with the support of every government agency and every instrument of American power.  

And although the terms “whole-of-government” and “smart power,” are relatively new, the basic concept isn’t.  As Henry Kissinger knows full well and has written, these terms have been applied from Ancient China to the Holy Roman Empire to early modern Europe to the 19th century, to the 20th century and today. The idea of leveraging all resources of state is an enduring principle of strategy and statecraft.

Battle-tested soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines have come to see that, in virtually any context, ensuring victory requires much more than guns.  In conflict zones, it requires good governance, reconciliation, education, and the rule of law and so on.  Marrying the threat of force with economic and diplomatic leverage is also essential in addressing a whole catalogue of strategic challenges. 

One, for example, in the current day upon which Henry, himself, has written is the need and the strategy to defeat ISIL.  And we will defeat ISIL – as I have said, ISIL’s defeat is certain, but it must also be lasting.  That will require DOD’s continued close work with the State Department to support the Government of Iraq.  It will require us to continue working with our State counterparts to galvanize financial support and accelerate the activities of our Coalition partners.  It will require Treasury to continue putting a squeeze on ISIL’s finances, and Homeland Security, the intelligence community, and law enforcement work together to prevent attacks on our homeland. 

While the physical defeat of ISIL will make more headlines, we are also mustering integrated efforts to secure cyberspace. It’s an area where the Department of Commerce is playing a critical role in setting standards.  And for our part, we at DoD have stood up Cyber Command, but this is an enterprise supported by the National Security Agency and the rest of the Intelligence Community and in close collaboration with Homeland Security.  At the same time, the State Department continues to push forward tentative efforts to achieve international agreements to apply a rule-based-order to behavior in cyberspace. 

As Dr. Henry Kissinger himself has emphasized, the potential dangers in cyberspace—and of technologies that have outstripped doctrines and strategies to counter them—present real dangers to global order and stability—this from him at 90 years old and despite living long before the Internet was imagined!  Dr. Kissinger has so often been prescient in spotting dangers on the strategic horizon, I am pleased that our efforts to respond to these challenges have become an integral part of our defense mission, and increasingly, of our work across the government.  

Now, Henry Kissinger continues to deliver insights of incomparable strategic value to our nation and defense mission, and most encouragingly, he shows no signs of slowing down.  While his contributions are far from complete, we are now beginning to appreciate what his service has provided our country, and how it has changed the way we think about strategy, and how he has helped provide greater security for our citizens and people around the world.

Whether in securing SALT I, or in opening up diplomatic relations with China, and, really more than that—putting strategic framework beneath them decades ago or in seeking to bring an end to the Vietnam War, Henry Kissinger has demonstrated to each of us how serious strategic thinking and perspective can deliver pragmatic solutions to seemingly intractable problems. 

I’m reminded of how President Nixon responded to Secretary Kissinger when he informed him that he was resigning from his tenured position at Harvard and committed to serving for the long haul.  In a polite and personal letter, the President responded, quote: “Frankly, I cannot imagine what the government would be like without you,” unquote.  

When we take into account the vast expanse of Henry Kissinger’s contributions to our country and the way we conceive of our security in today’s world; when we consider what he has done to prepare the United States for a period global competition, and global interaction, we, too, can’t imagine a world, a government, without Henry Kissinger.

Dr. Kissinger, Henry, it is difficult to imagine our nation’s role in the world, and continued global leadership, without the strategic insights you have brought to your service across different administrations, Republican and Democrat, across different strategic eras, and across a period of more than six decades where you have shaped the debate on every defense and national security issue of consequence.  On behalf of this Department, and on behalf of a grateful nation, thank you. 

It’s now my great honor to grant you the Department of Defense highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Award.