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Robert Gates: 'If America Declines to Lead in the World, Others Will Not'

11:11 AM, May 22, 2011 • By DANIEL HALPER
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At a commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned against allowing America's might and military to decline. "As we make the tough choices needed to put this country’s finances in order and to secure our future prosperity – including the sacrifices that will be required of all Americans – there will undoubtedly be calls to shrink America’s role in the world – for us to sharply reduce our international commitments and the size and capabilities of our military," Gates said. Much of his address aimed to counter calls to "shrink America's role in the world."

Gates is retiring from his position next month, and much of his comments were seemingly directed at his boss, President Barack Obama, who last month proposed cutting an additional $400 billion in Defense spending.

"If history – and religion – teach us anything, it is that there will always be evil in the world, people bent on aggression, oppression, satisfying their greed for wealth and power and territory, or determined to impose an ideology based on the subjugation of others and the denial of liberty to men and women," Gates said. "[M]ake no mistake, the ultimate guarantee against the success of aggressors, dictators, and terrorists in the 21st century, as in the 20th, is hard power –the size, strength, and global reach of the United States military."

Beyond the current wars, our military credibility, commitment, and presence are required to sustain alliances, to protect trade routes and energy supplies, and to deter would-be adversaries from making the kind of miscalculations that so often lead to war.   

 All of these things happen mostly out of sight and out of mind to the average American, and thus are taken for granted.  But they all depend on a properly armed, trained and funded American military, which cannot be taken for granted. 

To be sure, a strong military cannot exist without a strong economy underpinning it.  At some point fiscal insolvency at home translates into strategic insolvency abroad.  As part of America getting its financial house in order, the size of our defense budget must be addressed.  That means culling more bureaucratic excess and overhead, taking a hard look at personnel levels and costs, and reexamining missions and capabilities to separate the desirable or optional from the essential.  But throughout this process we should keep in mind historian Donald Kagan’s observation that the preservation of peace depends upon those states seeking that goal having both the preponderant power and the will to accept the burdens and responsibilities required to achieve it.  And we must not forget what Winston Churchill once said, that “the price of greatness is responsibility…the people of the United States cannot escape world responsibility.”

Gates ended by quoting from a letter John Adams wrote to his son -- “Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody.  It will be done by somebody or another.  If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not.” To this, Gates added, "if America declines to lead in the world, others will not."

Here are Gates's full remarks, as prepared for delivery:

Thank you, Father Jenkins.  Members of the faculty, trustees, proud parents, distinguished guests, and, most of all to the class of 2011 – thank you for having me here.  I am truly honored to be your graduation speaker, and flattered to now be your classmate.

It’s an extraordinary privilege to be in the company of this year’s honorary degree recipients.  I’m joined by eminent scientists and mathematicians, human rights advocates, leaders in business, church officials, and the person you’re perhaps most excited to see in this stadium: Lou Holtz.

Lou started as a backfield coach at the College of William and Mary at the same time I began college there as a freshman, exactly 50 years ago this August.  That dates us both.  William and Mary wasn’t exactly a football powerhouse – and the head football coach later would find far more success as a banker.  But from those humble beginnings, Lou went on to lead the Fighting Irish to a national title, and I can now say that I once commanded the attention of thousands in Notre Dame Stadium – at least for the first minute of this speech. 

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