U.S. Defense Priorities and Policies: A Conversation With Secretary Mark T. Esper

Friday, December 13, 2019
Leah Millis/Reuters
Mark T. Esper

U.S. Secretary of Defense


President, Council on Foreign Relations

Secretary Esper discusses U.S. relations with China and Russia, implementation of the National Defense Strategy, and modernization of the U.S. military.


HAASS: Well, good morning. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with the secretary of defense, the Honorable Mark Esper. I’m Richard Haass, president of the Council.

The way we’re going to do it this morning is the secretary will deliver a few remarks, then he and I will have a chit chat, and then we’ll open the conversation to you, our members. The meeting is on the record. That’s the Council equivalent to your Miranda rights: anything you say can and will be used—(laughter)—against you.

This meeting comes at a—I think it’s probably to say it’s always a critical time. But even in the realm of critical times, this has got to be one. As all sorts of documents from the Pentagon and other parts of the U.S. government made clear, we’re seeing a revival of great-power rivalry some three decades after the end of the Cold War. In virtually every region of the world we’re seeing new challenges, some caused by strong states, some by weak states. There’s new technologies and new global challenges for which we do not have adequate consensus, much—or arrangements in place for dealing with them. We have questioning amongst the public about whether what we’re spending on defense is too much, and there’s also resistance to prolonged interventions. There’s a bit of fatigue out there about the perceived or actual burdens of American foreign policy. So the job of secretary of defense—always demanding, always important—is arguably particularly demanding and particularly important.

Let me say one or two things about Secretary Esper. He’s been in the job since July. Not new to the Pentagon, though; he was secretary of the Army before that. He was a senior executive for years at Raytheon. He’s been in public service an awfully long time. He served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for negotiations policy during the George W. Bush administration, where we both were. And he also worked on the Hill. He’s a graduate of West Point. And during the First Gulf War he was with the 101st Airborne Division of the Army.

Please join me in welcoming the secretary of defense. (Applause.)

ESPER: Good morning, everyone. And thank you, Richard, for that kind introduction. I also want to thank CFR for inviting me here today to speak. I think my membership is current, and—(laughter)—that’s why. But anyways, it’s a great privilege to be here among some of our nation’s leading national security and foreign policy experts.

I’d like to use my opening remarks to outline how the United States military is adjusting its posture around the world to strengthen one of our most powerful advantages: the relationships we’ve built with our allies and partners. Forged over decades of shared sacrifice, the United States’ network of alliances and partnerships provides us an asymmetric strategic edge our adversaries cannot match. Much of the world looks to the United States as the global security partner of choice, not only because of our superior military capabilities and equipment, but also because of our values. We offer something our competitors do not: respect for sovereignty and independence of all nations, adherence to international law and norms, and the promotion of individual liberty and human rights.

Today, the international rules-based order that America and its allies have worked hard to establish is being tested in new and precarious ways. As this audience is well aware, we have entered a new era of great-power competition. China first and Russia second are now the department’s top priorities. Both nations are rapidly modernizing their armed forces and expanding their capabilities into the space and cyber domains. Emboldened by the growing strength of their militaries, Beijing and Moscow are not only violating the sovereignty of smaller states, but they are also attempting to undermine international laws and norms to advantage themselves at the expense of others.

Through its Belt and Road Initiative, China is expanding its economic ties across Asia, Europe, and Africa with a less-publicized objective of expanding the PLA’s—the People’s Liberation Army’s—influence and reach.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursion into Ukraine are evidence of its blatant disregard for state sovereignty and its intent to undermine NATO’s cohesion.

To address these challenges head on, the National Defense Strategy remains the department’s guidepost. An essential component of the strategy is our second line of effort: strengthening alliances and attracting new partners. Here’s how we are delivering on this crucial task.

Let’s begin with the world’s strongest multilateral military alliance, NATO. Last week I participated in the NATO leaders summit alongside President Trump, and throughout the sessions many allies cited the United States’ leadership as critical to getting the alliance back on track. They recognize that the president has succeeded in elevating the issues of burden sharing and readiness, and he has secured widespread agreement that NATO members must do more.

As a result, our NATO allies have agreed to invest an additional $130 billion per year into defense and expect to reach 400 billion (dollars) a year by 2024. Nine member states currently meet the 2 percent GDP commitment, while ten more are on the path to reach that goal by 2024. We commend these nations, and we urge the remainder uphold their commitment to the Wales pledge that was made a few years ago. For shared security work, there can be no free riders.

As evidence of NATO’s growing strength, we succeeded in meeting our goal of identifying 100 percent of the contributions for the NATO Readiness Initiative’s Four 30s. Having thirty air squadrons, thirty combat vessels, thirty mechanized battalions ready to right in thirty days or less is a critical step to re-instilling NATO’s culture of readiness.

We’re also pleased that NATO recently issued its first formal statement about the challenges posed by China. But that is just the start. NATO members must be vigilant in adopting technologies and products such as 5G that could undermine our ability to share intelligence, conduct planning, or communicate securely across the alliance.

Meanwhile, we are also bolstering our alliances and partnerships in our priority theater, the Indo-Pacific. I’ve visited the region twice now as secretary of defense, and throughout my discussions with my counterparts I’m reminded just how much nations in that region desire American presence and leadership. They look to us to deter aggression, to ensure free and open access to the global commons, and to uphold longstanding international rules and norms.

Last month I attended the ASEAN defense ministers meeting plus in Bangkok, where many of my counterparts repeatedly—though privately—condemned Chinese coercion and intimidation, and applauded the United States for its willingness to stand up for a free and open Indo-Pacific. China’s brazen efforts to coerce smaller states and assert illegitimate maritime claims threaten its neighbors’ sovereignty, undermine the stability of regional markets, and increase the risk of conflict. This behavior stands in stark contrast to the United States’ vision, one that respects and provides opportunity for all nations large and small.

Our approach continues to prove itself superior to China’s, as evidenced by our growing partnerships across the Indo-Pacific. For example, during my recent visit to Thailand the prime minister and I signed Joint Vision 2020, which charts a course for increased interoperability and expanded exercises and training between our forces. In Vietnam I announced that the United States will provide their coast guard with a second high-endurance cutter to enhance their security and build greater trust between our nations. And last week in California, I signed a memorandum of understanding with Singapore announcing their permanent fighter training presence in Guam, which will deepen an all-important defense cooperation. And next week in Washington, D.C., the United States will host the second-ever India 2+2 ministerial, where we will continue to advance our growing partnership as our strategic interests align. As you could see, our resolve to uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific is deep-rooted and has only grown stronger in the face of efforts to undermine it.

In the Middle East we must remain committed to supporting a regional constellation of strategic partners to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS while deterring Iran’s acts of aggression. In Syria and Iraq, the United States has achieved great success working alongside our partner forces to destroy ISIS’s physical caliphate and to liberate millions of people living under its barbaric rule. This includes the successful operations that resulted in the death of ISIS’s founder and leader, Bakr al-Baghdadi, as well as one his top deputies.

We maintain our leadership role in the defeat ISIS campaign, which brings together seventy-six nations and five international organizations to provide funding, military capabilities, and political support. This includes the ongoing operations we are conducting in Syria alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Meanwhile, Iran continues its malign influence and widespread destabilizing activities across the Middle East. Its efforts have increased in recent months as it attacked targets in Saudi Arabia, disrupted commercial shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, shot down a United States unmanned aerial vehicle in international airspace, and provided support to proxies including the Houthis, Hezbollah, and Shia militia groups in Iraq.

To address these threats, since May of this year nearly fourteen thousand U.S. military personnel have deployed to the region to further enhance deterrence and demonstrate our commitment to our allies and our partners. These forces are not intended to signal an escalation, but rather to buttress our efforts at deterrence. We are focused on internationalizing the response to Iran’s aggression by encouraging increased burden sharing and cooperation among our allies and our partners. The International Maritime Security Construct, which protects freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, includes contributions from the United Kingdom, Australia, Albania, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. The more nascent international integrated air missile defense effort led by Saudi Arabia aims to increase security by protecting critical infrastructure throughout the region.

Through these actions, we are sending a clear message to Iran that the international community will not tolerate its bad behavior. We will continue to work alongside our partners to safeguard freedom of navigation and the free flow of economic resources. We will not allow our adversaries and competitors to undermine the free and open international order that benefits all nations, and we will out-compete them to demonstrate that the United States has earned its position as the global security partner of choice.

That is why we are taking steps to lower costs and expedite the sale and provision of state-of-the-art U.S. military equipment. We’ve made improvements to the foreign military sales process resulting in increased sales and deeper interoperability among our partners.

Another avenue to strengthening existing partnerships and cultivating new ones is through education and training programs. The U.S. provides allies and partners with access to almost four hundred United States-led professional military education courses for the next generation of foreign leaders to learn alongside our best and brightest. I’ve personally benefited from these sorts of programs. I attended West Point with students from other countries. I trained at the Hellenic military in Greece for a summer. And during my time in the Army I became friends with an officer from Africa while we both attended the Infantry Officers Advanced Course. Programs like these help us develop close relationships with valuable partners around the world while also introducing them to America, which is why I have asked the department to find ways to increase PME participation.

Of all of the comparative advantages the United States has to offer as a global partner, we cannot forget the one that truly sets us apart: our values. We honor our treaties. We respect sovereignty. We safeguard intellectual property. We promote human rights. And we defend the international rules-based order. Our alliances are not transactional ones; rather, they are rooted in mutual respect, common values, and a shared willingness to fight for them. The United States has and will continue to pursue and strengthen such alliances.

Thank you, and I look forward to our discussion this morning. (Applause.)

HAASS: Well, thank you, Mr. Secretary. Let me thank you for two things: one, for being here today; and second, for your service.

ESPER: Thank you.

HAASS: We appreciate it.

ESPER: My privilege.

HAASS: I’m going to quote from you to begin.


HAASS: You say that, and I quote, “The United States is the global security partner of choice not only because of our superior military capabilities and equipment, but also because of our values.” Well, I agree with all that, but I would have added something else, which is also because of our dependability. And the question is, haven’t we essentially undermined that, particularly in Syria by our treatment of the Syrian Kurds? How can you basically go to our allies around the world and say we will be there for you?

ESPER: Because we live up to our obligations. And our obligation, our agreement, our understanding with the Kurds was this: that we would work together, we would fight in Syria to defeat ISIS. The SDF was great partners. They took care of a lot of the action on the ground, and we supported them—we enabled them from the air. But nowhere at no point in time did we tell the Kurds we will assist you in establishing an autonomous Kurdish state in Syria; nor will we fight against a longstanding NATO ally, Turkey, on your behalf. And so that was the commitment we made. That was our commitment to Turkey, as well, to stand by them.

And so I don’t think it undermines us. I think when you look around the world, we find U.S. forces in over one hundred and fifty countries. We have defense treaties, legally binding treaties, with nearly fifty other countries—with fifty countries. We find a significant U.S. troop presence all around the world in many countries. So when it comes down to it, at the end of the day we will be there, and we have been there in the past. You look at any of the major conflicts over the last seventy years and the United States is probably there supporting in one way, shape, or form.

HAASS: I agree about the bulk of the last seventy years. The question of whether that has changed now and whether the perception is that it’s changed now by the kinds of demands we’re putting on the South Koreans to pay orders of magnitude more in the way of host-nation support, you said towards the end of your prepared remarks that our relationships, our alliances are not transactional. Well, that’s exactly what they look like from the point of view of many of our allies, where increasingly it looks even conditional; that if they are unwilling to pay—say, to meet the 2 percent threshold in NATO—that we have introduced questions about our willingness to fulfill Article 5. How can—how can you say that our relationships have not become transactional?

ESPER: I don’t think that’s a transition. I think that’s an obligation. The United States puts out 3.4 percent of its GDP to defend the United States and its allies and partners. Many countries are putting forth far less than that—1 percent, less than 1 percent. I and many of my predecessors—and you can read it in their books, whether it’s Secretary Gates, Secretary Carter; I saw Secretary Panetta the other day—all agree. You know from your time in government. We’ve asked our European partners for years—for decades—to increase more, to pay more for their defense, to contribute to the alliance, and they haven’t stepped up. Not all of them. Some do, but many don’t, as you heard my numbers. So I don’t think it’s unreasonable, as we ask the American people—the American taxpayer—to bear the burden of the United States’ defense and the defense of over—at least fifty, if not more countries around the world, for other countries to step up and contribute more to their own defense.

HAASS: But if they fail to, does it raise—from your point of view, does it question or does it put into play the certainty of our willingness to come to their defense?

ESPER: I don’t think so. Look, I served in NATO. I was an officer serving in Italy in the early ’90s. I’m fully committed to NATO. I’m committed to our alliance with Japan and Korea. But again, it’s—I don’t think it’s asking too much. I think the American people easily get it, that all countries should contribute to their defense. There can’t be any free riders. There can’t be any discount plans. We are all in this together. If we are going to meet the challenges of our day in terms of great-power competition, whether it’s Russia or more importantly China, we have to—we have to work together. We all have to contribute together to make sure that we are prepared, if worst comes to worst, to defend our way of life.

HAASS: You mentioned one of your predecessors, Ash Carter.

ESPER: Yeah.

HAASS: And when he was asked about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he made clear that he would prefer U.S. membership of that to a carrier task force. One of the first national security decisions the current administration made was to not go ahead with joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In retrospect, do you wish we had? Or would you be open to joining it now?

ESPER: Well, I’m not involved in trade matters and I, frankly, don’t recall all the details of the TPP. But I will say it’s fair that as we approach China in the years ahead we have to take a whole-of-government approach, and it requires looking at all things.

During my travels in the Asia-Pacific, as I met with, oh, heck, now probably a dozen-plus countries in two trips, and I meet with them when they come to D.C. as well, they will talk to you about a number of things. In some countries it’s the military. In other countries it’s the economy. In countries like Micronesia there are great concerns about climate change And so you have to engage each partner in terms of what interests you, but what interests them as well, and then work forward from there. So I have argued and we have underway, again, a relook at our whole-of-government approach when it comes to China and make sure we sort it out across all those different avenues.

HAASS: Let me circle back to China, but I wanted to be sure to raise a couple of other issues. You said something which I wholeheartedly agree with, which is the importance of IMET, international—

ESPER: Just that one? You just agree with that one?

HAASS: No, one or two others too. (Laughter.) I don’t want you to get too comfortable.

But the point on IMET’s an important one. I think it’s, you know, pound for pound, dollar for dollar one of the great things we do. But you also talked about the need for increased scrutiny of military students. We just, obviously, had the tragedy in Pensacola. Is there any way that we can structure these programs so that they continue, but that we’re not entirely dependent upon the sending nations to do the vetting? How does one—how can we basically create the confidence that the people we want to bring here to train and educate, that in there there are not individuals who could cause us real harm?

ESPER: Sure. No, it’s a—it’s a great question. And we—as you know, within twenty-four hours or so of the tragedy—and it was a tragedy, and we—you know, we mourn the loss of life and those who were wounded in that terrible incident.

But I put out a number of taskings. One of them is to review our vetting procedure so we don’t rely entirely on the sending country. We have vetting procedures that begin with the State Department, DHS, law enforcement, and eventually us as well. I think there are things we could do better, clearly. One example would be continuous monitoring, particularly if somebody goes home and comes back.

But I think these are very important programs. Like I said, I’ve had personal experience with them. They’re great long-term investments.

When I spoke the other day to the Saudi deputy defense minister, Khalid bin Salman, who offered his condolences, full support for the investigation, all this stuff, he reminded me that he was a graduate of the naval flight program at Pensacola. And it gave him a great understanding into that program in particular, but more importantly us, Americans—what do we value, our culture. And it makes for great partnerships. And I can go around the world and point out to you not just people in the military, but people who have left the military and who are now leaders in their country who have attended a U.S. training program, a military academy, you name it. And again, it’s one of the critical long-term investments that we can do, and that’s why I want—I want to increase that by 50 percent over the coming five years’ defense program.

HAASS: I’d agree with that, too. (Laughter.)

ESPER: I got two. (Laughter.) Let’s try for three, Richard.

HAASS: I don’t know. We may test it. We may test it with this one. (Laughter.)

ESPER: Let’s talk about the—well, don’t give me that one. (Laughter.) State Department budget, right? How about that? (Laughter.)

HAASS: Yeah. Touché.

ESPER: I support the State Department budget. (Laughter.) Are you good with that?

HAASS: I’ll resist the temptation to respond to that one. I wish others did as well.

ESPER: Oh, only I answer questions. I see.

HAASS: Oh, no. State Department budget’s national security.

ESPER: That’s right, it is. It is.

HAASS: And Bob Gates made it clear that it was pound for pound, again, a real benefit.

ESPER: Look, let’s pull this thread a little bit, in all seriousness. You know, I’m reviewing our force posture and activities in Africa, for example. State Department has a big role there, as does USAID. I’ve worked with—or I’ve been around USAID on the ground in different parts of the world; another important component, another key factor in national security.

HAASS: Absolutely.

ESPER: And there are other agencies. I don’t want to exclude anybody and somebody be upset at me, but—

HAASS: No one will be upset.

So at West Point you studied the laws of conflict.


HAASS: And then during the Gulf War you had to practice them and make sure they were adhered to. Now you’re secretary of defense. Just recently the president of the United States intervened in the military justice system, overturned some convictions that had gone through the normal process. How is it going to be possible for you henceforth to maintain discipline in the ranks, to basically protect the integrity of the military justice system when you’ve got a president who shows his willingness to intervene in it and then actually use these individuals for his political purposes?

ESPER: Well, look, let’s get back to the facts. The president is part of that process. As commander in chief, he has a role in the—in that process, first and foremost. General Milley at the testimony before the House Armed Services Committee the other day made that point. That’s number one.

Number two is President Trump is not the first person to—first president to issue a pardon or a commutation.

That said, I’m a big believer in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I think it serves us well. We need to constantly work on it and improve it. I ordered probably a month ago right now a review of how we educate and train our military, and also how we implement it, because those things are important. I think for the large part, 99.9 percent if you will—pick the number—of American forces—soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines—know what the UCMJ is, of certainly the laws of armed conflict, and follow them. And we will—we, the military, will hold them to account, and people can trust that. And we look at different ways we can strengthen that. And I think that’s important, as you said, to good order and discipline, but also to making sure that people know we have the most professional fighting force in the world.

HAASS: I’m going to keep jumping around here just to certain issues on the record. I want to talk about one thing in the Middle East. There’s been some uncertainty about troop numbers when it comes to Saudi Arabia, but I want to focus more on—if you want to say anything on that, great, but I wanted to talk about Iran. And you said in your prepared remarks that we’re sending a clear message to Iran that we will not tolerate its malign activities, but isn’t that exactly what we’re doing? They’ve now shot down our drone, they’ve attacked Saudi oil installations, they’ve attacked tankers, and they’re gradually breaking out of the 2015 nuclear deal. So isn’t—despite your words, isn’t U.S. policy essentially that at least up to now we are tolerating Iran’s malign activities? We’re responding with economic sanctions, but we’ve not responded directly to anything they’ve done.

ESPER: Well, we’re responding diplomatically. We’re responding economically. We respond through our allies and partners. We also want to make sure we work closely with our allies and partners.

But the same token, we’re not going to get dragged into a war with Iran simply because of this or that. We want to be very—very deliberate in our application of military force, and we will do so as we see fit. But we also want to consult closely with our allies and partners. I know you would agree with that too.

So I think that’s the key. But we—there are—that’s why we have warned Iran with regard to whatever it is considering. We drew a pretty clear line with regard to their—the attack they sponsored on Saudi Aramco, that that was—had gone too far. It was the first-ever attack, if you will, on Saudi oil facilities. So, look, we want to work very closely.

The message has been there is not a path for you on the military side of things. And we have put maximum pressure on the economic side. The way forward is through diplomacy. And the president and Secretary Pompeo and all of us have said very clearly we’ll meet anytime, anywhere. I think you saw in terms of a big movement by our NATO allies—some of our NATO allies—here in New York at the UNGA, U.N. General Assembly, you had the leaders of Britain, France, and Germany, as I recall, pressing the foreign minister, I think, of Iran to say come meet with President Trump; let’s sit down and let’s talk about a new and comprehensive agreement that addresses a number of things.

HAASS: I’ll let the Iranians speak for themselves for that. But what we haven’t put forward is a clear sense of if you were to do certain things, here is the economic benefits you would receive. We’ve not articulated for North Korea or Iran, for that matter, a clear set of interim arrangements. For example, if you were to extend—accept extended sunset provisions on the JCPOA, here would be the economic benefits that would accrue to you.

ESPER: Well, they have to come to the table until we can sit down and talk and we can put forward what we’re looking for. And what we’re looking for is a new and comprehensive agreement that addresses their nuclear weapons, their nuclear pursuits; ballistic missiles; number three is their malign activities throughout the region, which have been going on since the revolution in ’79; and number four, hostage taking. So they come down and sit, and we can talk about what that looks like. But at the end of the day, what we want Iran to be is a normal country.

HAASS: But if they’re—would you be willing—just say they were willing to do what you wanted in one or two of those spheres, but not in all of them. Are we prepared for partial agreements with Iran?

ESPER: Well, I’m going to let that—leave that to the State Department. They’ve got the lead in terms of negotiations. But the key thing is to sit down and just talk. Let’s begin that conversation.

HAASS: The French president recently described NATO as “brain dead.” What’s your take on that? (Laughter.)

ESPER: Are you going to ask him too?

HAASS: I’d love to.

ESPER: You know, I actually had a chance with President Trump to sit and talk with him about that and allow him to explain some. I think it’s—I think it’s misplaced. I think—some of which I cited here—NATO is on a much better trajectory now whether it’s burden sharing, whether it’s a more focused approach toward Russia. We talked about the NATO Readiness Initiative. That’s critical because if worst comes to worst and Russia does something to a NATO ally and we have to invoke Article 5, the United States can’t get there as quick as it needs to be in some of these situations. So we need our NATO partners to be ready. Got a lot better focus on challenges out of area such as China, 5G, et cetera. So I think we are—we are much more focused than we were a few years ago, much more ready than we were a few years ago. And we have a great secretary-general, Stoltenberg, who is going to look at—look upon what President Macron said, and tease it out, and make sure he understands exactly—we have a clear understanding. It’s fair to make sure. Every now and then you should take a step back and look at where the alliance and where we need to improve.

HAASS: One of the things that led President Macron to say what he said was Turkey.

ESPER: Was what?

HAASS: Was Turkey, his disagreements with Turkey. You talked about here Turkey being an ally. My impression on that, Turkey may be an ally, but I would—I would question whether it’s a partner. I wouldn’t—for example, if I were looking at war plans, I wouldn’t assume access to Turkish bases. We’ve had some rough experiences with that, as you know. Do you really consider Turkey under Mr. Erdoğan to be a reliable partner?

ESPER: Say that last part again?

HAASS: Do you consider Turkey to be a reliable partner under the Erdoğan government?

ESPER: Look, I’ve been outspoken on this publicly. Said, I’m very concerned about Turkey’s direction. I think they are spinning out of the NATO orbit, and we need to work hard to get them back in. So you talk about S-400, I completely agree. We had an agreement years ago, I think under the Obama administration, which made sense to say all NATO countries should divest themselves of Russian air equipment and move toward NATO interoperable equipment. And here you have a case where a NATO ally, not behaving as a partner, to use your words, is going in a different direction. We’ve had them holding us planning within NATO. And we’ve had them—this, I think, unwarranted incursion into Syria is another example where it’s just not helpful.

The key thing, I think, is to continue to find places where we agree to build those bridges. We have great mil-to-mil relations. My aim is to continue to build upon them. And see if we—what are the ways that we can bring Turkey back into the fold, if you will.

HAASS: Let me talk about two situations closer to home in our hemisphere. One’s Venezuela. And let’s put aside the question about U.S. forces being used to overthrow the Maduro government. I’m not asking about that. But if one way or another the Maduro government falls—something that many of us hope actually happens one day sooner rather than later—would we be prepared or are we preparing that we could join part of a reestablishing security operation there? Because we don’t want to have there what you might call catastrophic success. Some of the experiences we’ve had in Iraq. But could we join with Lima Group countries or others to help re-stabilize Venezuela, to essentially jumpstart or restart that country? Could you imagine that scenario?

ESPER: Yeah. You know, I don’t comment much on hypotheticals. First of all, it’s a brutal regime. And what they’ve done to that country and those people is just terrible. And I think the sooner Maduro is out of power the better. But we do a lot of planning all the time in every part of the world. And one of the things we look at is what does the post-Maduro regime, and how can we help from a humanitarian aid perspective, for example, to begin with? And then I think in cooperation with our partners and others in the region, we would have to think through what does that look like? How do we help reestablish—

HAASS: Because the security challenges will be enormous, in part, also to get the four million people who have left—entice them back in.

Another security situation—

ESPER: It could get worse before it gets better if you don’t—

HAASS: Well, if it’s like the Middle East it could get worse before it gets even worse. (Laughter.) You can quote that by the way. (Laughter.) The other rule, by the way, is the enemy of your enemy can still be your enemy. (Laughter.)

ESPER: Yeah. I’m well aware. (Laughter.)

HAASS: Let’s talk about Mexico. Let me contrast it to Colombia. Years ago Colombia was experiencing a terrible civil war. Plan Colombia was a sustained effort on the—a partnership between the United States and the Colombian authorities to strengthen the capacities of security forces and really the country as a whole. And it won, it succeeded.

ESPER: Yeah. I visited down there. We had special forces down there. We helped them through that, I think.

HAASS: It was a fantastic success.

ESPER: Is that one of your programs, by the way?

HAASS: I had a minor, minor role in it when I was at the State Department. But it was—again, it went over ten years, bipartisan, it was really—and it was political, it was military. It was whole of government . And I think it’s a good model for us. And it was done in partnership.

Could you imagine something like that with Mexico? Because people like me look at Mexico, we look at the security services being overwhelmed, the penal system being overwhelmed, the judicial system being overwhelmed. And if Mexico is overwhelmed it’s terrible for Mexico. It’s also terrible for the United States. Is that the kind of thing that—again, I don’t know if it’s a hypothetical or not—but we need to start—we need to say—you would say in our planning world, that we need to think about how we can help weak countries, be it in the security triangle in Central America or elsewhere—that we need to help them fulfill the obligations of sovereignty?

ESPER: Yeah, it’s a good question. I’ve talked to my counterparts down there already on a few issues. You know, the first thing that comes to mind is a success of Plan Colombia, as I recall, I may be mistaken, was that we were there at the invitation of the government.

HAASS: Absolutely.

ESPER: And so you have to have the support of the government to begin with. And I’m not saying we would or would not, but that would be step number one.

HAASS: Hundred percent.

ESPER: And then I recall from my days on the Hill, so I’m dating myself, that we have a lot of programs that happen down there and cooperation at the economic level, the law enforcement level, I’m fairly certain at the DOD level. So those things are in place now, but it is a hypothetical in the sense that we would ever get to a point that—I certainly wouldn’t compare it to the Plan Colombia situation now.

HAASS: Two last questions from me, then I’ll turn it to our members. That’s when the tough questions start. In your remarks, you warn NATO members to be vigilant on adopting Chinese technologies such as 5G. But wouldn’t it be easier to discourage them if there were an American alternative?

ESPER: Yes. And we’ve talked about that—or any Western alternative, right? So we have to do that. We’ve had meetings within the Pentagon. I tend to—I tend to meet with folks from industry at times. And I had a meeting with a group of folks from that industry. So, yeah, the way forward is to offer alternatives. Now, would we be able to do what the Chinese do or want to do? No. Which—in terms of dumping it, you know, offering it at rates that are ridiculous. No. But we have to provide alternatives, I think. That’s the way you deal with it.

HAASS: Based on your experience when you were at Raytheon, do you have a strong sense of what the kind of public-private partnership models—what’s required for them to succeed?

ESPER: Them being 5G providers?

HAASS: Whether it’s in that area or—what lessons do you bring in from your successes or from the problems you’ve faced?

ESPER: The best thing is when government and the private sector partner. And you have to begin having those discussions. And again, I’m not the lead on that. And the White House and the administration, there are others taking the lead on this. We at DOD played a supporting role. We’re actually trying to set up test sites, if you will, at initially four of our bases, because we control so much land and all that, we can really invite U.S. companies into our facilities, onto our bases, and really start testing 5G. So we want to play a helpful role as well because we see the criticality of it, not just toward keeping Huawei out, but also we’re going to rely on 5G in order to ensure we can share intelligence, do operations planning, and fight the fight when—in the years ahead.

HAASS: Last question from me, and then I’ll open it up, which is—deals with the South China Sea. Could you explain what is our policy now? What is our practice for demonstrating to China that we don’t accept its territorial claims to the South China Sea?

ESPER: So the policy is, you know, of course, at the macro level we support the international rules-based order. In terms of a strategy/policy we tell them, I’ve told them, I’ve told my counterpart we will sail, fly and operate anywhere international law allows. At the end of the day what we want is for China to obey those international rules, and that there’s—the way we implement that, by the way, is I think was your third part of your question—is by doing what we call Freedom of Navigation Operations, where we will, again, fly and sail within—not within their recognized legal territorial boundaries, but within those places that are clearly international.

HAASS: Do we give them a heads-up when we do that, or do we specifically not?

ESPER: We sail through them. By the way, we aren’t the only ones. I think the French are doing this, the Australians, other countries. And we see an uptick in this from many of our partners because we all recognize if we don’t reassert the illegitimacy of their claims—and they will—it will become a status quo.

HAASS: All right. We agree on that.

ESPER: There you go. That’s not bad.

HAASS: OK. Let’s open it up for our questions. You know the rules. Short, succinct, stand, let us know who you are. Yes, ma’am.

Q: Hi. Nancy Collins, Columbia University.

I’d like to follow up on Richard’s first question about dependability and credibility of the U.S. in global affairs. I think your predecessors articulated a forward-leaning vision of initiatives that could be done to always ensure that that’s the case, from—Richard, I think, mentioned, you know, Gates, Mattis, Carter, et cetera. I think that we—yes, we do have a credibility issue right now. I think the maritime issue in Iran that you were dealing with recently is an example of that. So just going forward, can you speak to specific ideas, new concepts, new initiatives that we could undertake to enhance our credibility and dependability to our allies and partners? Thanks.

ESPER: Sure, thank you. Sometimes I get—you know, people say, well, you’re not credible because you didn’t fight Iran on these issues. So it’s funny how you get different tides. No matter what you do you’re going to have critics. Which is fine. That’s the nature of the business. Look, you know, probably the most recent demonstration is the fact that when the Iranians sponsored that attack on the Saudi oil fields we assessed the situation and decided in order to make sure that we could reassure, first of all, our friends in Saudi Arabia and others, we—you know, I ordered the flow of additional troops to the region. Well over a thousand that are there. But it was also to deter the Iranians and then, you know, third to, again, support the international rules.

And by the way, commensurate with that I was on the phone calling our friends and allies, in Europe primarily, to say: Look, help the Saudis out. Let’s put more air defense assets. So that’s one place. We talk about bolstering our—in Korea, to deter the North Koreans’ efforts there. In Europe were going to be doing the first ever—not the first ever, I’m sorry—the first in a long time major deployment of U.S. forces to Europe, particularly in Poland. U.S. Army forces, I think the number is twenty thousand, to show our commitment to Europe, to NATO, and our ability to train and rehearse to do these things. So if we were to go around the globe and if I thought a little bit we could talk about how we’re doing this on a day-by-day basis by committing American troops, American equipment, American efforts at all these specific locations to try and reassure friends and allies.


Q: Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, CNBC contributor. Good morning.

There are reports this morning that we have a phase one trade deal with the Chinese. From your viewpoint as defense secretary what’s important within a trade deal to address all the national security concerns you have with China?

ESPER: Well, yeah, I hadn’t paid attention to the trade deal, quite honestly. I will say, again, trade is an important component of our relationship with China. I think the more we can—we can have those types of arrangements, where we have a healthy trade between the two countries that’s good. It lowers the tension, if you will. I don’t want China to be an enemy. There’s no need for them to be an enemy. But we certainly have entered this era of great power competition where we are competing with them. And I think the more we can build bridges to China, whether it’s economically, diplomatically, mil-to-mil. I reached out early on to my counterpart in China to open up a dialogue with them. I think all those things are important to make sure that China heads in the right direction over the coming decades and becomes part of the rules-based order and not a disruptor to it.

HAASS: Do you feel that we’ve now entered a cold war with China, or do you think that’s premature?

ESPER: I think it’s premature to call it a cold war, absolutely.

HAASS: Ambassador Indyk. You have your hand up.

Q: Thank you, Richard. Martin Indyk from the Council. Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us.

I wanted to try to get you to give us your vision, if you would, of a security and defense architecture for the Middle East given that, as you said in your speech, China and Russia are now the priorities. That implies that the Middle East becomes less of a priority. There’s a lack of clarity as to whether we’re coming or going, and sending troops, if I may just make a comment on that, is a good demonstration of commitment. But if everybody knows, especially adversaries, that the president isn’t going to use the troops, then sending the troops doesn’t do the job. But there’s a lot of talk about an Arab NATO. You talked about an integrated air defense system. Well, good luck with that. I think we’ve been trying since the 1990s. For that we’ve got GCC countries blockading each other. And now we’re talking about nonbelligerency pacts between Israel and Arab countries, a potential U.S.-Israel defense treaty. Can you give us a sense of what your vision is or what the architecture should look like? Because it’s very confusing.

ESPER: This is great, me answering a question about the Middle East to you. (Laughs.) You can give us a class on this.

Look, NATO is the gold standard, right? If you could get all the—not just the GCC but Arab countries, right, in the Middle East aligned, at best, NATO would be the standard, to include an Article 5 type of measure, if you could, that you would agree to ensure the stability and protection of those countries. And I think at this point, I think most—you tell me—most of the states in that region would say that Iran is their long-term regional challenge, and for all the reasons that you, I, and most of you know well. So I think that’s the gold standard. But you’re right, we—you know, you have the rift that’s going on right now between GCC states. You know, you have—if you look, each country has its own particular challenges as we go around the map. You know, I think Israel is holding pretty strongly as a long, close ally of ours. But it’s a complicated region. But that would be the vision, would be to get to that point, to creep toward it, if you will. We’re certainly not going to have a big bang, arguably, like we did with NATO back in 1950-whatever it was. But that would be the vision, I think.

HAASS: Nancy Lieberman.

Q: I have a question regarding North Korea. How—well, could you please discuss with us how, when we wake up and we hear that there’s another launch of a North Korean missile, and yet we still constantly seem to have every six months or so another meeting between the heads of state, or telephone calls, or whatever? How do we reconcile that friendliness to the fact that they keep on moving forward with their nuclear program?

ESPER: So it’s a fair question. First of all, let me say this much. They have not tested an ICBM-capable missile in some time. That’s a good thing. And they have not conducted nuclear testing in some time, which is another good thing. To give you—to put in historical context of just the last few years, as I came into office as secretary of the Army in the fall of 2017, I’ve said this before, we were on the—we were on the path toward conflict. And because we were preparing for it. And I think the president’s leadership, his intervention in terms of reaching out to Kim Jong-un, helped get them on a different path. And so during that time we’ve had the suspension of those two things, things that they need to do in order to have the capability that would directly threaten our homeland.

Now, they still are doing training. They do short-range ballistic missile tests, that we are also concerned about, we watch closely, as do Korea—South Korea and Japan. And we’re trying to hard right now, the State Department is, to get them back to the table because the only way forward is through a diplomatic—a political agreement, if you will. War on the peninsula would be horrible. Nobody wants to see that. But my job is twofold. One, I have to prepare for that. I have to work closely with our ROK, Republic of Korea, partners to ensure we’re ready to deter conflict and, if that fails, to win. But secondly, I got to help enable our diplomats. And I talk closely with my counterparts in Seoul and Tokyo to do just that. So I think we’re going to be tested here soon, tested in the sense of this next stage, trying to get them back to the negotiating table, and hopefully not back on the other path.

HAASS: But aren’t we, arguably—let me just follow up on Nancy’s question—worse off? They’ve increased their amount of nuclear material. We assume some of it’s been fabricated into actual weapons. They’ve tested shorter-range systems, which you say, from which they can learn things. Meanwhile, we’ve put our large exercises with the ROK on hold. So on balance, can’t we argue that the last couple years have worked in North Korea’s strategic advantage?

ESPER: No. We’re still in a high state of readiness. We’re fully capable of doing what we need to do. I think most people would say in principle it’s better that we’re talking and not preparing for war. And we’ve been talking for two years, or for however long we’ve been in this state. And I think we need to keep talking, because otherwise the alternative is not a good one. And you’ve been around long enough, and we’ve been watching North Korea on this path for twenty-five-plus years. I remember the agreed framework back in 1994. We tired multiple times, through multiple administrations. I think it’s been the common theme is how do we ensure that the DPRK does not get a nuclear weapon or a long-range ballistic missile? They already have the nuclear weapons and now they’re trying to develop an ICBM. And that becomes a direct threat to our homeland.

HAASS: Roger Hertog.

Q: Mr. Secretary, my question has to do with a longer-range set of issues. It appears that there are tremendous improvements in the quality of technology, whether it’s 5G, as you mentioned, or artificial intelligence, or 3-D printing, where many smaller countries and many of our adversaries have made large advances. Won’t this also have a very big change in how what the appropriations are, what kind of military we actually put to the force? We today have a military, in essence, that is more like World War II or one of the Iraq Wars rather than what might come. So how are you coming to terms with that? And do you see any changes in how military equipment will be purchased, bought by the U.S. government?

ESPER: Yeah. And I’ll speak to that from—I’ll put on my old secretary of the Army hat, because it makes the point even more starker. I think with regard to the Army, you know, we’ve been living off the Reagan-era buildup, if you will. If you look at the major systems in the Army—the Bradley, the Abrams tank, the Apache helicopter, the Blackhawk, the Patriot system. Those are all Reagan-era pieces of equipment. And so what we started in the Army was to make that transition, because you’re right. A number of things have happened. First of all, most R&D is happening in the private sector not in the public sector by the military. We can’t keep up in some areas, such as communications.

Secondly, in the private sector a lot of that’s happening at small company level today, entrepreneurs, et cetera. So what we’re trying to do in the Army, and what now as I look across the services, all the services are doing, is how quickly can we move into the next generation? That’s hypersonics, robotics, unmanned vehicles, unmanned vessels, unmanned tanks. How do we capitalize on AI, machine learning, all those things? And we’re putting a lot of investments into all those things right now to get there because my view has been, particularly when you look at the combination of, for example, AI and robotics, whoever gets there first will have an advantage on the battlefield for years to come. You’ll have clear overmatch. You won’t change the nature of warfare, but you’ll change the character of warfare.

So we have to make those investments. I think we—you know, in some areas we took a knee for a few years. And in some areas we’ve been hobbled by sequestration and CRs. By the way, we still have one underway right now. And we’ve got to get this appropriations bill done here in the next week. But those things have set us back. And the Chinese and Russians don’t have to deal with CRs and sequestration, or all the regulations. Part of this is self-imposed, right? We have a bureaucracy. We’re very bureaucratic. We’re very risk-averse in terms of how we design, build, procure, et cetera, equipment. We’ve got to clean up all those processes. And in fact, we’re going to have a major rewrite of our DOD regulations coming out here pretty soon on that piece. So I don’t disagree with much of what you’re saying.

HAASS: Just following up on that. Do you feel that the military we’ve now got is essentially right sized, right shaped? Or do you—do you feel you need to have more resources? Or simply greater latitude in how you spend the resources you have?

ESPER: Yeah. (Laughs.) I won’t be the first secretary to ever say we don’t need more resources. (Laughter.)

HAASS: But we could make some news here this morning.

ESPER: But—(laughs)—but look, we—every department of the government could always use more resources. And we could get in a separate discussion about mandatory, versus discretionary, versus tax policy, all that stuff. But the fact is, my job—the American people are going to see me hopefully soon $738 billion. That’s a lot of money. My job is to be a very good steward of that. That’s why one of the things that I started when I came into office six months ago was to begin a defense-wide review of all of our programs. And we found a solid $5 billion that we can free up to put back into lethality and readiness. But we got to keep doing that. We got to be better stewards of the tax dollar. And my job then is, as I report to Congress, as I certainly report to the president, is telling them what I think we need in terms of next year’s defense spending, et cetera.

HAASS: Let me say one more thing. For recent years a lot of the calories of your building have gone into fighting small things around the Middle East and Africa. But increasingly you and others are talking about the revival of great-power rivalry. We have the reality of Russia using force in Europe and the Middle East. We have China becoming ever more capable. Can you say something about how you’re balancing the need to think small against untraditional threats, but increasingly also now to think big against more classic threats, and how you’re trying to balance that?

ESPER: Yeah, so I’ll give you a good example. So our National Defense Strategy says great-power competition, focus on China, then Russia. We also have to worry about these rogue state threats, Iran and North Korea. But it also says we have to maintain a capability with regard to irregular warfare, because the threat from violent extremist organizations is going to be with us for a long time. It’s generational. So as we look, for example—a classic example is we have a lot of aircraft that are capable of doing ISR, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, those types of things, but in a very permissive environment where you don’t worry about a large state like China or Russia having air-to-air missiles, and things that can shoot them down. So we got to get out of the habit of procuring those things that can survive in an Afghanistan, or Africa, or places like that, and start building better systems that either have stealth, or defensively capabilities, and whatnot, that can survive doing ISR functions against a Russia or China.

Those are advanced technologies. Those are more expensive technologies. Those are harder things to do. But you’re going to see me doing that over the coming budgets, moving troops, and resources, et cetera, out of low-intensity conflict areas and into more of the great-power competition. And the same with my budget. My budget will lead that as well because we have to make those types of investments if we’re going to be able to deter conflict with a Russia or a China.

HAASS: Yes, sir.

Q: Thank you. David W. Rivkin from Debevoise.

 I’d like to follow up on Mr. Haass’ question about the president’s pardon of the soldiers convicted of war crimes. What have you personally done since the pardon to ensure that the troops on the ground understand that they have to follow international law, and the law of war, when the president sends such a different signal? And would you please answer Mr. Haass’ question about whether you think it’s appropriate for the president to campaign with the soldiers who he pardoned?

ESPER: So, again, what I—the directive I put out is, first of all, for us to look at all of our education and training programs to make sure that the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are getting trained properly, it’s reinforced on a routine basis, et cetera, they know what the laws of warfare are. And if you look eighteen years of conflict, there haven’t been, thank goodness, that many cases where soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have misbehaved. So we have to continue to beat that drum, look at it. I talk a lot to the service secretaries about that. And it’s something we just have to stay on top of.

HAASS: We have time for one or two more. Paula. Do you want to wait for a microphone?

Q: Thank you. Paula DiPerna.

But not to harp on that, but how can you say that you have given a signal to the troops that they will be held accountable when the perpetrator was pardoned, was allowed to retire, has been campaigned with? How is that possibly valorous? How can you characterize the valor of that?

ESPER: Well, like I said, the president has authorities as commander in chief. He’s exercised them. President Obama has exercised them. Many presidents have exercised the power to pardon and commute. One of those soldiers was accused of—was convicted of a war crime. He served six years. Six years in prison. There was a second one that never was convicted that was pardoned before he want to trial. And then the third one, the Navy SEAL, Eddie Gallagher, was convicted not of murder but of holding up a corpse. And I’m not defending or advocating either way. I am a strong believer in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And I think the system should be allowed to play itself out.

But these cases are all different, and they all need to be looked at. We found in the case of the Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher that the Navy made mistakes in terms of its handling of the case, its prosecution. And that’s being investigated right now by the Navy in terms of how they handled the case in accordance with the UCMJ. So these things are complicated. My job is to continue sending a message out there that ethics matter even in combat, and that we have a professional standard that we need to uphold. And I will continue to say that to the field, just as I’m saying it right now to all of you.

HAASS: We got time—I’m sorry. We got time for one last question, hopefully on another subject. Yes, ma’am. (Laughter.)

Q: Yes, thank you very much. Joanna Weschler with Security Council Report, which is not part of the U.N., but my question concerns the U.N.

I’m very curious. The U.N. has quite a few peacekeeping operations all over—not all over the world. Mainly in Africa.

ESPER: Who does?


ESPER: The U.N. OK, got it.

Q: I’m not with the U.N., but the question is about the U.N. Sorry.

ESPER: I understand.

Q: So there are peacekeeping operations in several countries of the world. The U.S. obviously, along with the other great powers, had to agree to their deployment. I am curious whether the existence or possibility of peacekeeping operations are part of your strategic thinking—just your own, to what extent.

ESPER: Yeah, sure.

HAASS: You mean U.S. participation in them, or—

Q: No. No, no, no. Just when you are thinking of situations of dangers, et cetera, et cetera, whether these—the fact that there might be peacekeeping forces, or that there exist peacekeeping forces, whether you think about them.

ESPER: So, again, we have to—our strategy says we have to maintain an irregular warfare capability. If you were to break down the bucket called “irregular warfare,” you’d have everything from what we call counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, all the way into peacekeeping, peacemaking, stabilization operations. And that’s—as we think about war planning, that stabilization in a post-combat environment is part and parcel of what we—what we consider. It’s an important part of that. And as you know, if you’re involved in this, the United States participates or supports peacekeeping operations all around the globe. We’ve been—we’ve been in the Sinai now since, what, 1979, supporting that effort. And we have monitors. We contribute—(end of available audio).


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