As the world considers the repercussions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the brutal Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, an increasingly assertive China, and the disturbing aspirations of nations like Iran and North Korea, it considers also what the role of the United States will be—and what its role must be is leadership, said the U.S. secretary of defense.
“We’re living through challenging times,” said Lloyd J. Austin III, who spoke today at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California. “That includes the major conflicts facing our fellow democracies, Israel and Ukraine; bullying and coercion from an increasingly assertive China; and a worldwide battle between democracy and autocracy.”
When the world appears to be in disarray, Austin said, U.S. allies and partners look to the United States to see what must be done. And the U.S. must not waiver in providing leadership and decision-making.
“These are the times when both our friends and our rivals look to America,” he said. “These are the times when the American people count on their leaders to come together. And these are the times when global security relies on American unity and American strength.”
Since the end of World War II, Austin said, the world has adhered to a rules-based international order, developed with U.S. leadership, that has provided not just the United States, but the entire world an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. Neither that rules-based order nor U.S. leadership must be allowed to falter, he said.
“The world built by American leadership can only be maintained by American leadership,” Austin said. “American leadership rallies our allies and partners to uphold our shared security. And it inspires ordinary people around the world to work together toward a brighter future.”
Inside the United States, Austin said, some Americans have shied away from the country’s role as a global leader and prefer instead that the U.S. move toward isolationism. Austin said that’s been a mistake in the past and is a mistake today, as well.
“If we forfeit our position of responsibility, our rivals and our foes will be glad to fill that vacuum,” he said. “In every generation, some Americans prefer isolation to engagement — and they try to pull up the drawbridge. They try to kick loose the cornerstone of American leadership. And they try to undermine the security architecture that has produced decades of prosperity without great-power war.”
Were the U.S. to shirk its leadership role, he said, America’s enemies and the enemies of its allies would only be emboldened. And that failure to lead would put the security and wellbeing of the United States and its allies at risk.
“The cost of abdication has always far outweigh the cost of leadership,” Austin said. “The world will only become more dangerous if tyrants and terrorists believe that they can get away with wholesale aggression and mass slaughter. America will only become less secure if dictators believe they can wipe a democracy off the map. And the United States will only pay a higher price if autocrats and zealots believe that they can force free people to live in fear.”
The U.S. has not shied away from its leadership role, Austin said, and will not. Instead, he said the U.S. has responded where crises have occurred—such as Ukraine and Israel—and has also continued to strengthen partnerships globally as a way to help future crises from developing.
Following the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, Austin said he made the trip to Israel to assure partners there that the U.S. is committed to their security.
“I flew to Israel to underscore our solidarity and our resolve, and to make it crystal-clear that America’s commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad,” Austin said.
Since then, he said, the U.S. has provided security assistance to Israel and helped get hostages held by Hamas returned home.
“We will continue to do everything that we can to help secure the release of every man, every woman and every child seized by Hamas — including American citizens,” Austin said.
In the Middle East, Austin said, the U.S. has also increased its own security posture. That now includes two carrier strike groups, an amphibious ready group, a Marine expeditionary unit, a guided-missile submarine, integrated air-defense and missile-defense forces, and fighter aircraft and bombers.
Austin also said that U.S. leadership with Israel includes reinforcing important values, such as those embodied in the law of war. And one of those values is that civilians must be protected. It’s something Austin said he had experience with during his time as an Army general operating in Iraq, and it’s something he said the U.S. continues to remind Israel of as it fights against Hamas.
“In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat,” Austin said. “I have repeatedly made clear to Israel’s leaders that protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza is both a moral responsibility and a strategic imperative.”
The U.S. hasn’t just provided security assistance to Israel, Austin said. The U.S. has also provided humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza. This week, he said, the U.S. airlifted more than 54,000 pounds of U.N. medical supplies, clothing and food to those in Gaza. He said it won’t be the last airlift of supplies.
Going forward, Austin said, the U.S. remains committed also to peace in the Middle East. And that means, he said, there must be a two-state solution there. There must be a nation for the Jewish people, and there must be a nation for the Palestinians, as well. And those two nations must act as good neighbors.
“We believe that Israelis and Palestinians must find a way to share the land that they both call home,” Austin said. “And that means a path toward two states living side by side in mutual security … a two-state solution remains the only viable way out of this tragic conflict that has ever been proposed.”
Following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the U.S. also stepped up to its leadership role. Last year, for instance, Austin spearheaded the creation of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, a coalition of some 50 nations that meets monthly and is committed to the security of Ukraine now and into the future.
Since the February 2022 Russian invasion, the U.S., allies and partners have worked to get important weapons to the Ukrainians to allow them to defend themselves. Included there are High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS; Patriot air defense systems; Abrams tanks; and more, Austin said.
U.S.-led efforts have helped Ukrainian forces weaken the Russian military, and Austin said that U.S. leadership and partner efforts must not stop until Ukraine is again free.
“The outcome of this struggle will define global security for decades to come,” he said. “And we don’t have the option of sitting it out. President [Joe] Biden has laid down a clear objective: The United States seeks a free and sovereign Ukraine that can defend itself today — and deter more Russian aggression in the future. And, so, we are working together with our allies and partners to help Ukraine build a future force that can ward off more Russian malice in the years to come.”
If the U.S. and partners fail to stand up to Russian aggression, Austin said, Russia will only be emboldened to do more.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine offers a grim preview of a world of tyranny and turmoil that should make us all shudder,” he said.
In the Pacific, Austin said China is the only rival with the intent and potentially the capacity to reshape the international order.
“The PRC [People’s Republic of China] hopes that the United States will stumble and become isolated abroad and divided at home,” he said. “But together, we can prevent that fate. And we have made extraordinary progress, along with our allies and partners, in meeting the China challenge and forging a more secure Indo-Pacific.”
Across the Indo-Pacific region, the U.S. is leading by strengthening partnerships there with other nations who value freedom and democracy.
With the Philippines, for instance, Austin said the U.S. has embarked on an expansion of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. That expansion will allow the U.S. access to four more Philippine military facilities.
The U.S. and India last summer also unveiled a new direction defense industrial cooperation.
“That strategy is already driving our work together on key defense platforms,” he said. “We also rolled out a major deal to build aircraft engines in India. And when I was back in India last month, we announced our intent to co-produce armored vehicles with India — our first time with any foreign partner.”
The U.S. has also been working closely with Japan, South Korea, Papua New Guinea, and Australia, as well.
Through the AUKUS partnership — which includes Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. — those three nations will help Australia acquire conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines, Austin said.
In advance of the Reagan National Defense Forum, Austin said he met in California with British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps and Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, who also serves as defense minister, for the second meeting of AUKUS defense ministers.
The United States is a world leader, and its military remains the most lethal fighting force in human history, Austin said. Neither of those will change.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are the United States of America,” Austin said. “It’s not enough just to pursue our national interests. We must also live our national values. As President [Ronald] Reagan said, ‘Our foreign policy should be to show by example the greatness of our system and the strength of American ideals.’ We must ensure, as President Biden has said, that America remains ‘a beacon to the world.’ We will not let that beacon flicker or fade. In this uncertain hour, at this time of testing, the world looks to America again. And we must not give our friends, our rivals, or our foes any reason to doubt America’s resolve.”