Thank you for that kind introduction.
It’s a pleasure to be in the United Kingdom and a privilege to be here in such an august place. I have never had dinner in such a splendid setting. Having spent some years in Texas, I am very fond of foods that are not particularly good for you. While Winston Churchill will be quoted often tonight, one of his statements won me over a long time ago. He said, during the Second World War, “Almost all the food faddists I have ever known, nut-eaters and the like, have died young after a long period of senile decay. The British soldier is far more likely to be right than scientists. All he cares about is beef ... The way to lose the war is to try to force the British public into a diet of milk, oatmeal, potatoes, etcetera, washed down on gala occasions with a little lime juice.”
Frankly, it is also a pleasure to be outside of the United States during our presidential campaign. We Americans, as a people, get a little strange every four years. President Truman, at Oxford to receive an honorary degree, remarked on this, noting that “in election years we behave somewhat as primitive peoples do at the time of the full moon.”
In addition to conducting the business of state, these visits are also a chance to celebrate and take stock of the special relationship between our two countries.
I have just come from Iraq and Afghanistan. In my visits to the front I have had the opportunity to see troops from the U.K. and, as always, have been deeply impressed by their valor and professionalism. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, British fighting men and women have – to paraphrase a poet from the Great War – more than done their bit, and had their share.
Any relationship, however special, will have its tense and awkward moments. I recall back in 1989, when I was Deputy National Security Advisor in the first Bush administration. The President had made the historic decision to sharply cut our conventional forces in Europe. It fell to Larry Eagleburger, then-Deputy Secretary of State, and myself, to sell the proposal to the NATO allies.
Our first stop on a secret trip was the U.K. We knew that if we could just make it past Margaret Thatcher, the rest of NATO would be a walk in the park. After being ushered in to her parlor, we handed the Prime Minister President Bush’s letter explaining the proposed reductions. She questioned us knowledgably and at length. At long last, but not surprisingly, she pledged her support. As she escorted us out, she smilingly told us that the two of us were always welcome at Ten Downing Street. Then her face turned glacial, and she added, “but never again on this subject.” In a later conversation with then-President Bush, she referred to the two of us as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.
It is impossible for an American to speak at a place like this without invoking the lion-hearted Englishman who was born on these grounds. Churchill’s stirring wartime oratory will never be forgotten in my country. He was also a marvelous observer of human nature and habit – particularly the customs of those he called “our kinsmen from across the ocean.”
He groused famously about the United States: “toilet paper too thin, newspapers too fat!” As you would imagine, he didn’t care for Prohibition – it was, he said, an “amazing exhibition” of “arrogance” and “impotence.”
As for American politics, he said: “I could never run for President of the United States. All that handshaking of people I didn’t give a damn about would kill me.”
In 1946, Churchill visited President Harry Truman. Truman had made a point of changing the American presidential seal, so the bald eagle would face the olive branch, rather than towards the quiver of arrows. Upon being told this, Churchill remarked, “Why not put the eagle’s neck on a swivel so that it could turn to the right or left as the occasion presented itself?”
Here of course Churchill was on to a larger point about being prepared both to wage war and to seek peace – a point that is a proper introduction to my topic this evening: the need to balance restraint in international affairs with the resolve and will to back up our commitments and defend our interests when called upon.
It’s a timely discussion in light of recent events in the Caucasus, and the debate over how the West should respond. It's also more than appropriate in this palace, monument to a great protector of the liberties of Europe – the Duke of Marlborough – and the birthplace of his famous descendant. It is amazing to think that Sir Winston, after researching his mammoth Life of Marlborough inside these walls for so long, published the final volume in September 1938, the very same month that Neville Chamberlain went to Munich and effectively ceded the Sudetenland to Hitler. As a result of his prescient warnings about Nazi Germany, and his rejection of appeasement, Churchill is often cited – particularly on my side of the Atlantic – whenever a crisis strikes or an adversary threatens.
And still today, Munich is invoked as a case study of the need to confront tyrants, adversaries, and threats early lest inaction bring war and even genocide. But if Munich 1938 – 70 years ago this month – represents one important lesson, there is another equally important lesson of history, one that still scars this island and the nations across the Channel. That is the lesson of August 1914, where a combination of miscalculation, hubris, bellicosity, fear of looking weak, and runaway nationalism led to a cataclysmic and unnecessary conflict.
In the crudest sense, failure to recognize one lesson – August 1914 – leads to the Somme. Failing to properly heed the other – September 1938 – leads to Dunkirk and Dachau.
For much of the past century, Western psychology, rhetoric, and policy-making on matters of war and peace has been framed by, and often lurched between, these two poles – between excessive pressures to take military action and excessive restraint, between a too eager embrace of the use of military force and an extreme aversion to it.
For the Western democracies, over-learning the lessons of World War I – that conflict must be avoided at all costs – helped lead to Munich. For the United States, over-learning the lessons of Munich – often cited by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson – helped lead to Vietnam.
I confess that as I prepare once again to retire from a life mostly spent in intelligence and defense that began 42 years ago, I have become quite modest with respect to grandiose pronouncements and forecasts about the future or our ability to discern it, especially when applying the so-called “lessons of history.” The noted American historian, Gordon Wood, has written, “History does not teach lots of little lessons. Insofar as it teaches any lessons, it teaches only one big one: that nothing ever works out quite the way its managers intended or expected.” Indeed.
Even one of the most prescient statesmen of the 20th century, the same Churchill who was later so wise, had moments when the crystal ball went cloudy. In 1908, he said: “I think it is greatly to be deprecated that persons should try to spread the belief in this country that war between Great Britain and Germany is inevitable. It is all nonsense.” Or Churchill again in 1924: “A war with Japan! . . . I do not believe there is the slightest chance of it in our lifetime.”
One of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s closest advisors, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, said this about World War II: “Our intelligence had proved to be wrong on nearly everything. American intelligence services let us down at every point . . . We had enormously underestimated the strength and striking power of Hitler. We had overestimated the staying power of France. We had overestimated the strength of England. We had overestimated the attitude and stamina of Belgium. We had terribly underestimated Japan, at least her immediate striking power. We had terribly underestimated the power of Russia.”
And there are many other subsequent – and more recent – examples of failures to anticipate threats and challenges or to evaluate accurately their magnitude and immediacy. In short, I believe the statesman would be well advised to listen, in contrast to the Roman emperors whose man in the chariot whispered “sic transit Gloria mundi” – all glory is fleeting – to listen to those who simply whisper, “Sir, we’re not sure what the hell is going on here.”
Today, we face a set of global security challenges that may be unprecedented in complexity and scope – presenting dilemmas that do not lend themselves to a simple choice between popular conceptions of Churchill and Chamberlain.
The period following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War unleashed old ethnic, religious, and nationalist hatreds and rivalries that had been largely buried since the Great War: The ethnic and religious slaughter in the Balkans; Russia’s seeming return to Czarist habits and aspirations; the fault lines between Sunni and Shia in Iraq and across the Middle East. The cast of characters sounds disturbingly familiar even at a century’s remove.
So history – in all of its contingent and tragic aspects – plainly did not die with the end of the Cold War as one American wrote, but has emerged again with a vengeance. It has returned to a world far more interdependent than the worlds of 1914 or 1938. And the monsters and pathologies of a long ago world have been joined by new forces of instability and conflict – terrorist networks rooted in violent extremism; rising and resurgent nation-states with new wealth and aspirations; proliferation of dangerous weapons and materials; authoritarian states enriched with oil profits and discontented with their place in the international order.
Still, even given the jaded disposition of an old spy, there are ample grounds for optimism. First and foremost is the extraordinary growth of political and economic freedom around the world since I last served in government 15 years ago.
But to secure these remarkable gains, and protect our most vital interests and aspirations in this global environment, the next American administration, working with our allies and partners, will need to employ a pragmatic blend of resolve and restraint to deal with the threats that confront us.
This applies to choices we face with regard to Russia. At this point I should note that for the first time, both the U.S. Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense have doctorates in Russian studies. A fat lot of good that’s done.