Remarks by Antony J. Blinken – The Value of U.S. Alliances (June 29)

I do want to start today by reflecting on the horrific attack in Turkey, once again the victim of a terrorist attack, unfortunately a scenario we have seen repeat itself all too frequently in recent months in Turkey. What we saw yesterday was not the act of martyr. It was the act of a murderer and murderers. And we stand in very strong solidarity with our friends in Turkey. And I know that our thoughts are with so many of those friends and colleagues across the globe.

Heather, thank you for a wonderful introduction. It is very, very good to be back home at CSIS. And I have to say that the house looks a little better than when I was first here—we were in different building then. This is a marked improvement. It is especially good to be here at this time because what you are doing, what Kathleen Hicks is doing, and particularly my great friend and mentor John Hamre is doing in trying to bring insight, wisdom, and counsel to the challenges we face is more important than it has ever been.

And it is a particularly great honor to share this room today with General Breedlove, who served this country for nearly 40 years in uniform. Truly extraordinary. General, it is an honor to be with you. Thank you.

We certainly do live in interesting times.

Last week, the forces of change battering our world found expression in the vote of the British people to leave the European Union.

And next week, 28 nations, including the United States and 22 EU members, will gather in Warsaw for the NATO Summit to underscore the enduring strength of our transatlantic alliance in protecting the interests and values that we share.

So in a sense here we stand today—confronting a profound and pronounced tension between the desire to resist global change by turning inward and the imperative to harness it to our aims by facing boldly outward.

We are operating in a strategic environment more fluid and fraught with complexity than ever before.

Power is shifting among, below, and beyond nation-states—urged on by the rapid pace of technological change, the growth of economic interdependence, and scale of global connectivity.

This requires governments to be more accountable to sub-state and non-state actors—from the mayors of mega-cities to corporate chieftains to super-empowered groups and individuals.

All of us are now linked in unprecedented ways—incentivizing new forms of cooperation but also, also creating shared vulnerabilities.

Among those vulnerabilities that we know all too well are the weakening of state authority, greater ungoverned spaces, the mass migration of people, the rise of extremist parties, slow economic growth, polarizing politics, and challenges of integration—all of these things are leading many to question the merits of the international order and institutions and alliances that sustain it.

But against this tide there is another—just as strong, if not stronger. One that has lifted billions of people out of poverty, extended the mantle of democracy to more people than ever before, created new middle classes—new consumers—from the Americas to Africa to Asia and beyond. Overall, overall, people are healthier, wealthier, better educated, and more tolerant than at any time in human history.

As President Obama says, if you had to choose any moment in history to be born, you would choose today. Regardless of nationality, gender, economic status. You would still choose today.

Indeed, for all the violence, tragedy, and hardship that still persists, the world overall is enjoying an unparalleled period of peace and prosperity. And that seems to confound us when we think about the headlines we are reading every day.

The question we have to answer for ourselves—at a moment when many are asking fundamental questions about our role in the world and the system that shapes it—is why? Why are we actually succeeding more than we even know, or believe, or understand? What explains the long peace that we have enjoyed for seven decades? And, at the same time, what explains the discontent with, the confusion about, indeed the rejection of the very system that helped produce this progress in the first place?

With so much at stake, it is imperative that we ask these questions honestly and openly, because the answers are profoundly consequential to the health, strength, and security of our societies today.

Heather alluded to this, but seventy-one years ago, out of the rubble of war and the pain of unfathomable national loss, our predecessors wrestled a new and wiser course from the currents of history.

They were determined to avoid the mistakes of the 1920s and 30s when countries turned inward in the face of rising hostility and aggression. They resisted the temptation to concentrate authority in the hands of victors or pull up the drawbridge to the rest of the world.

Instead, they built an international system of institutions, of rules, of norms that gave everyone a stake and a say in the running of world affairs.

This was not an act of blind faith. It was an expression of deep pragmatism.

Their purpose was to prevent for all times a return to war between and among great powers and to create a safe, more stable environment in which countries could develop to the benefit of all their citizens.

Of course, we know it all too well, this system didn’t eliminate all turmoil, all trouble, all conflict, all inequity. It did not—could never—insulate societies fully from the pain of social and economic change.

But standing at the remove of seventy-one years, I think it is fair to say it got the big picture right—averting new global cataclysms, ending the Cold War peacefully, and creating the stability and space needed for countries to grow and to prosper.

And for the United States, the new global power at the time, giving others a voice and vote in this order helped prevent what usually happens when one country rises above others—and that is the bandwagoning of those countries together to check the rise of the emerging power.

The post-war system that we took the lead in shaping grew by attraction rather than coercion, as the desire of others to join in further deepened and strengthened its roots.

International law, environmental protections, child labor laws, human rights safeguards, public health systems, trade regulations, maritime rules, international financial institutions, peacekeeping forces, the nonproliferation regime and so on—today these norms, these institutions work in concert to the advantage of every aspect of our modern life and restrain some of our darkest demons.

This is what we mean when we refer in the shorthand to the liberal international order. But by repeating it so often, we don’t always take the time to connect the overarching logic to the tangible benefits that we enjoy today.

Every aspect of this order is deserving of its own speech, but this morning I’d like to focus the one indispensable foundation of it all: our alliances and partnerships.

Every day, a network of U.S. alliances and partnerships operates overtime to deter aggression, enable the free flow of people, goods, and ideas, and facilitate international cooperation to meet transnational threats.

Now, we enter into these relationships first and foremost for ourselves—for the interests, for the safety, for the security of the American people. But this network also extends benefits to others—a virtuous cycle that repays us with interest and further strengthens our position of global leadership.

Now, we have important and sincere disagreements in and between our societies over how to best address the complex security, economic, and political challenges we face—and indeed whether our alliances and partnerships are delivering the value we need.

And there are those who suggest that alliances are simply more of a burden than a benefit—they cost too much, achieve too little, encourage free riders, risk embroiling us in other people’s problems, distract us from investing at home, and generally leave us with the short end of the stick.

Even as it gains traction, this argument remains in my judgement fundamentally flawed—overstating the costs of alliances while underestimating the risks of turning inward and abandoning and certainly downplaying their benefits and virtues.

Now, it is true that our alliances and partnerships give every member a stake in the success of one another.

But it is this shared stake, supported by our courageous men and women in uniform and our diplomats and development professionals in the field that has kept the long peace and enabled new generations of Americans to pursue their dreams and ambitions.

Today, these alliances and partnerships—and the international order they safeguard—are so embedded into the reality of our lives that we tend to take them for granted.

The generations who first fought and sacrificed for them to take root are not the strongest or loudest voices in our great policy debates anymore.

As our memory of the past fades, we are left to only imagine the consequences of losing what we have always and so easily counted on.

But our predecessors knew—just as we do deep down—that the mere belief in freedom is not enough.

We must steadfastly defend it and protect it.

That is why the United States maintains a strong, stable network of Atlantic and Pacific allies and global partners that is the envy of our adversaries.

The reason we are the world’s preferred security partner—the first pick at dodge ball—is not simply because everyone just likes being around us. It is because the world respects the power and predictability of our commitments—the value of which accrues dividends over time for our security, our prosperity, our values, and our capacity to overcome our greatest global challenges.

Every day, our allies and partners serve as the front line of our defense—enabling us to stay ahead of our enemies and project our presence without the even higher cost of permanent footprints in every corner of the globe.

Put simply, the world is safer for the American people when we have friends, partners, and allies.

There are still those who believe that our nation’s overwhelming military superiority means we should and could operate unilaterally—or that corralling others is much more trouble than it is worth.

But we know well, and General Breedlove can certainly speak to this directly, there is tactical as well as strategic and political value in not having to fight a war alone.

We gain access to bases. We hold regular joint planning, training, and exercises, develop overflight and deployment agreements. We deepen intelligence sharing. We strengthen interoperability, which is what melds different nations—with different procedures, different languages, different systems—into one cohesive and mighty force.

We defray the high cost of modern warfare and community stabilization among many partners. We draw strength from the experiences of dozens of different uniforms planning at one table. And we gain legitimacy from dozens of different flags working towards one mission.

Our own effectiveness is improved when we know how to operate and how others will operate in any theater. And our own reach is amplified when we can pre-position equipment and stage from any region of the world. Just imagine how difficult it would be to fly sorties over Daesh positions in Syria if our aircraft carriers had to return home to refuel.

Above all, these ready-made coalitions are our insurance policy—worth the cost of their premiums for the moment when we need them most.

For those who doubt the value and credibility of our alliances, consider that NATO has invoked Article 5—the solemn obligation that all members make to the defense of one another—only once.

And it was invoked in defense of us—the United States—on September 12, 2001.

In the years since, over 1,000 allied personnel have made the ultimate sacrifice alongside U.S. and Afghan forces. Today, the flags of 39 nations, including 26 Allies and 13 partners, fly over the mission in Afghanistan. Romanians, Macedonians, and Georgians provide force protection on the ground. Ukrainians support NATO’s train, advise, and assist mission in western Afghanistan. Turks are helping Afghans reduce corruption and manage their financial systems. And the Australians, British, Dutch and others are helping Afghan officers outline the future of their own security forces. We have shared the fight, the costs, the losses, and the leadership in Afghanistan.

But one of the least appreciated benefits of our unrivaled alliance network is not its role in fighting wars—but in actually preventing them. Without our security guarantees, advanced nations like Japan and South Korea would seek to develop their own nuclear arsenals, plunging the world into regional nuclear arms races—something that administrations of both parties have worked hard to deter for decades.

We also continually work to modernize and adapt our alliances, to ensure they reflect today’s challenges and adequately distribute costs and responsibilities.

In the Asia Pacific, in the last three years, we have updated the guidelines for our defense cooperation with Japan to expand its contributions to international security; concluded new host nation support agreements with both Japan and the Republic of Korea to help support our military presence; signed a Force Posture Agreement with Australia; and concluded a landmark Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines, which gives U.S. forces and equipment access to key military bases throughout the region.

Despite our serious concerns with the political situation in Thailand today—as a result of which we are not conducting business as usual—our oldest treaty partnership in the Asia Pacific enhances the ability of military forces in the region to work together on peacekeeping, anti-piracy, humanitarian response.

And next week, in Warsaw, we will strengthen and update the most effective military alliance the world has ever known.

In order to navigate 21st century challenges, NATO allies understand the importance of contributing their full share toward our common security. Five allies already spend at least 2% of GDP on defense, and over two-thirds will increase defense expenditures in 2016.

We have still more to do—including strengthening our overall deterrence and defense posture to counter emerging challenges in the east and south; ensuring rotational land, sea, and air presence along NATO’s eastern edge; maintaining NATO’s Open Door to nations that meet our high standards; sustaining our commitment to Afghanistan, including making a pledge of an additional three years of financial support to Afghan security forces—through 2020.

But we won’t have to tackle these challenges alone. We have invited the EU to join us in Warsaw, where we will deepen cooperation between the two organizations—especially on bolstering security in the Mediterranean and countering hybrid, cyber, and terrorist threats.

Now, more than ever, we must confront our challenges as a united transatlantic community—integrating our diplomatic, military, and economic tools to meet the full range of our shared threats.

The assurances of our security also set the conditions for commerce to thrive and nations to develop in an open global economy whose rules and standards are not only fair, predictable, and known but also reward transparency, innovation, and plain hard work.

It is a nexus of stability and growth that has proven itself time and again: in the formation of NATO, which protected the reconstruction of postwar Europe and the creation of a common European market—our single largest trading partner today; in the enlargement of the EU and NATO and the subsequent trade and investment opportunities for the United States; in the deepening of our U.S. presence in the Pacific alongside the rapid rise of East Asian countries and economies, home to three of our top ten trading partners and home to soon two-thirds of the world’s middle class.

And in the development of the rules-based international financial and trading system that has underpinned global economic growth and propelled billions from poverty. That is why agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which project American leadership and update trade rules for the 21st century are so important.

In every region of the world, the absence of major power conflicts has allowed nations to devote their time, their energy, and their creative talent to developing their own economies rather than fighting wars.

Of course, the converse is also true: the bonds of commerce discourage conflict because nations now have far more to lose.

Roughly 90 percent of global trade is carried across the sea—from the Horn of Africa to the Straits of Malacca. The U.S. Navy patrols and protects these sea lanes that are vital to regional stability and our own growth and prosperity.

It is not an act of charity.

Ninety-five percent of the world market is beyond the borders of the United States. Cutting ourselves off would be shooting ourselves in the foot.

The ability of U.S. corporations to ship their goods abroad and set up shop in different counties depends on our system of alliances and partnerships that permits us to operate worldwide, calming the waters for the free flow of commerce and capital and creating an international environment ripe for innovation.

Now we know all too well the gains are not always equitable, or even, or secure for all. This task to do more to ensure that they are remains ours to still meet. But as the world’s largest trading nation, the United States continues to reap the greatest benefits.

And if we are not taking the lead in writing trade’s rules and shaping its contours to the highest standards, someone else will—and we will find ourselves in a race to the bottom, not to the top. A race to the bottom to the detriment of our workers, our shared environment, our intellectual property, and the transparency and integrity of a globalized world that we could not escape even if we wanted to.

Our alliances so acquire their potency not only from our military capabilities or economic ties but also from our democratic ideals—from our belief in human dignity and our respect for human aspirations. NATO’s founding treaty, in fact, emphatically states that our collective defense alliance is also a community of values “founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.”

It is the attraction of these universal values that has inspired movements across the world to shake loose the chains of authoritarianism and undertake the painstaking work of building and safeguarding the fundamental institutions of a democracy: a free press, civil society, political parties, accountable police forces, judicial independence, transparent governance, rule of law, and a representative parliament.

In Europe, the prospect of joining NATO and the EU has propelled this journey forward—requiring new members to have stable democracies and encouraging them to peacefully resolve any disputes.

These feats may seem unremarkable today, but they remain herculean in the context of history on a continent once governed by nationalistic blood feuds.

In East Asia, it is also no surprise that our strongest allies are the region’s most robust democracies, and our relationship with new partners like Myanmar and Vietnam grows as their commitment to democracy increases.

At a time when state bullies, proxy regimes, and violent extremists seek to prey on our differences, erode our unity, and suffocate space for civil society, our alliances stand as irrefutable proof that democracies are not sources of global vulnerability and insecurity. To the contrary, they constitute our greatest reservoir of strength and stability.

Inherent in our network of alliances and partnerships is also a profound recognition that the United States cannot solve all the world’s problems, and we cannot fully solve any of them alone.

We need friends to share the burden.

Because the challenges we face do not stop at borders or distinguish by nationality. It is a world where epidemics cut swiftly across frontiers and hackers across firewalls; where violent extremists scar our communities and climate changes our planet; where an unprecedented number of migrants and refugees are risking their lives every single day to try to find economic opportunity or sanctuary from war.

These global challenges demand fundamentally new solutions informed by the tools, the expertise, the imagination of a wide range of partners.

But international cooperation on urgent and complex global issues doesn’t come easily or automatically. It actually requires a foundation of trust and an alignment of interests that develops over years if not decades of engagement.

And here again, our alliances provide ready-made relationships to mobilize others against these common threats.

When Daesh’s campaign of terror emerged in the shadow of ungoverned spaces in Syria and Iraq, we built a coalition of 66 partners—including all 28 NATO allies—to bring every political, diplomatic, economic, and military tool to bear against this threat—undermining the very foundations of Daesh’s self-declared Caliphate and revealing its cause for the savage lunacy that it is.

When Russian aggression violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of an independent, democratic nation Ukraine, the United States and the EU imposed coordinated sanction. It was no coincidence that we were joined by Australia, Japan, Norway, and Canada—our allies. Our continued unity on sanctions has sent a strong signal to Russia that we will not allow borders to be redrawn at the barrel of a gun. ‎And as Ukraine continues on its reform path, despite continued Russian aggression in Donbas, it is more important than ever that we maintain our sanctions until Russia lives up to the commitments it made when it signed the Minsk agreements.

When we saw Iran’s nuclear program speeding ahead while the window for preventative action was closing, the European Union stood firmly by our side on sanctions and helped spearhead diplomacy toward a historic deal that makes the world safer.

When Ebola ravaged parts of West Africa and threatened communities from the United States to Europe, we coordinated an intensive military and civilian response with France and the UK and rallied contributions from all across the world. Our race against the clock was aided by having our closest allies at our side.

When a tsunami devastated South and Southeast Asia, extensive experience working closely with Australia, India, and Japan helped orchestrate the multi-national life-saving humanitarian response.

Now think about this for a minute, and think and imagine how difficult it would have been to have any of these coalitions coming together as quickly or effectively as they did without the habits and norms of cooperation fostered over years of partnership and years of alliance. Today, it is this flexible geometry of collaboration—resting on several decades of alliance-building—that equips us to face new security issues from cyberspace to outer space.

It is hard to fully grasp what our world might look like without the advantages that U.S. alliances and partnerships provide—what it would mean to make our way in this world without a community of like-minded friends we can call on in times of trouble.

It would mean building ad hoc arrangements every single time we wanted to act—an extraordinary diplomatic lift that would distract us from the real challenges at hand.

It would mean a world where goods are fewer and more expensive; where travel is harder, education exchanges tougher, international research collaboration near impossible.

It would mean anarchy on the high seas, with pirates, drug traffickers, smugglers, and sanctions violators sailing freely—and a global power vacuum filled by those whose values look nothing like ours.

It would mean a world in which our adversaries are emboldened to challenge us; where nuclear weapons spread; where an unintentional war is far more likely and small crises grow easily into big ones. In other words, it would mean a world unhinged—a scary world not only for future generations, but for us right now.

That is why now is not the time to abandon the core of our liberal international order. This is the time to strengthen it.

We have to start by much more clearly acknowledging and much more effectively addressing the legitimate concerns of people who feel they are being left behind by a system that doesn’t work for them. You can’t really call it progress if too many of our fellow citizens do not believe they share in it.

There is no doubt that this order is under tremendous stress.

We see it in convulsions of doubt, a lack of self-confidence, and search for identity in our own transatlantic community. We see it in the concerns amplified by election-year politics here in the United States. And we see it, of course, in the United Kingdom, where the British people voiced their will in an outcome different from the one that we would have wished.

As Secretary Kerry said two days ago in London, “Good friends are important all of the time. They are especially important in complex times.”

Our special relationship remains as strong ever and the bedrock of U.S. security and foreign policy. The UK’s leadership is essential on every single global issue we face today—nothing can, nothing will ever change that.

We will continue to work together—shoulder-to-shoulder with allies, partners, and friends—to adapt our international order to better reflect the new realities that its founders could not have imagined more than seventy years ago.

We will continue to strengthen our alliances, work with like-minded emerging powers, and impose costs on those who seek to assert their will by force.

And we will continue to empower new young leaders, new voices, and new representatives who can demonstrate the benefits of this order for a wider range of communities.

This is a responsibility not solely for nations but for each and every one of us. And especially, especially for those of us in the foreign policy community who need to do a better job communicating the purpose of our work and connecting its value to the experiences of those outside our capital cities, to make it real and relevant in their lives, in the lives of our fellow citizens.

There is a story we like to tell—and I’m not sure if it is true or maybe apocryphal—about former Secretary of State George Shultz and his new ambassadors. Just before a new ambassador would head out on a new assignment at the State Department, Secretary Shultz would invite them to his office. He’d walk them over to a very large globe near his desk and ask the ambassador to point to their country.

Of course, the ambassador would spin the globe until he finally found his new posting and would put his finger on it. And then Secretary Shultz would then gently move their finger across the globe to the United States—“That’s your country”—a quiet reminder of the responsibilities that we have as public servants to represent the best of American values and interests every day. And in an increasingly complex world, it is our alliances and partnerships that help us to do precisely that.

Thank you very much.