America's Purpose: Leadership for a New Security Consensus

America's Purpose: Leadership for a New Security Consensus  (2005) 
by Joe Biden

Thank you very much. Thank you, Mort.

And thank you all for deciding that a New America Foundation is necessary. It is badly needed.

Folks, it would be inappropriate to begin any discussion today without acknowledging the trauma the nation is facing at the moment, not just in our foreign policy in Iraq, but on the Gulf Coast.

This is an incredibly difficult moment, and the only thing I will say at this moment is that hopefully — hopefully — we will learn some very important lessons from the way in which this whole tragedy has been handled. For it is not too much of a leap to suggest that if this were not an act of God but a conscious effort to wreak havoc upon the country, we're not so well-prepared, to state the obvious.

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats, speaking of his Ireland, wrote a people, "Easter Sunday, 1916." One line in the poem seems particularly appropriate, today and of late. He said, "The world has changed. It is changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born."

It has changed utterly. And four years ago this week the events of 9/11 made it crystal clear just how fundamentally it had changed. And it made it clear that America faces two overriding and interconnected national security challenges in this new century.

The first is, we have to win the struggle between freedom and radical fundamentalism. Then the second is, we have to keep the world's most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the world's most dangerous people.

And this gathering is an important moment to step back and ask, how are we doing? How are we doing so far in meeting these twin challenges?

And I think the short and honest answer — at least in my judgment — is: not as well as we could or should be doing. And I believe we need a new approach. And that's what I propose to speak about briefly this morning.

Today, after a necessary war in Afghanistan and a war of choice — an optional war — in Iraq, Americans are rightly confident about the example of our power, but I have been concerned that some of our leaders have forgotten about the power of our example.

For all of our great might, we are not only less comfortable in the world today but, I would argue, more alone and more isolated than any time in our country's history.

And as a result we are, in my judgment, less secure, not more secure. And I believe we have to recapture the totality of our strength to, in fact, enhance our security.

To prevail against radical fundamentalism and to prevent the spread of the world's most lethal weapons, we must rely both on the force of our arms but also on the strength of our ideas and our ideals, which we seem to have shelved of late.

And that's going to require at least three things: one, rebuilding and building in the first instance effective alliances in international organizations; two, forging a prevention strategy to defuse threats to security long before they are on the verge of exploding, while retaining the right we've always had to act pre-emptively in the face of an eminent danger; and thirdly, reforming failed and anti-democratic states that are the source of instability, radicalism and, in many cases, terror.

That, in turn, seems to me it will require both a fundamental shift in American foreign policy and a reconsideration by our allies and our partners; a reconsideration of their own approaches and reflexes.

I spent the last week in Italy with a group of 50 or so European leaders, including four or five heads of state, a number of foreign ministers. And it's beginning to be discussed out loud not only what we clearly know we have to reconsider but how they have to reconsider their approaches and, my word, reflexes.

Let me start with the first part of this new approach that I'm suggesting of building strong alliances, international organizations.

And I do not claim any uniqueness to what I'm about to say. But I think, I hope you'll find some coherence in what I have to say.

Some of my friends in the current administration have, as we've observed, little interest in alliances, international organizations or treaties. And there's a logic to their disengagement.

Many of my Democratic friends just assume they're just a bunch of warmongers, that all they want to do is wreak havoc in the world. The worst part is that's not the case at all, in my view. These are patriotic Americans who really believed, in my view, at the turn of the century, that they had a formula to avoid the carnage of the 21st century.

And part of the logic that embodied this new notion among many of those — not a majority, I would argue, of Republicans but, clearly, the winning hand in this administration — is their logic of disengagement.

They start with the premise that America's military strength is the single most important — single most important determinant in the international system.

Because that might, they argue, is so much greater than anyone else, they see allies and agreements as more of a burden than a benefit; as Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians.

Our military might, in my view, is essential to our security, but I start from a very different premise. Most of the threats we face, if not every serious threat we face, from radical fundamentalism to the spread of weapons of mass destruction to rogue states that flout the rules, that have no respect — all of these problems — they have no respects for borders — not one of these threats can be met solely with unilateral or even multilateral military force.

Even when we can succeed by ourselves I would further argue there is a compelling reason not to act alone. Some of those reasons range from basing rights to burden-sharing to the benefits that flow from legitimacy.

And they discount all of those, in my view, my neoconservative friends.

And Iraq, I would argue, demonstrates the price we pay for a unilateralist foreign policy. There was never any doubt — at least in my mind; I suspect in most of yours — that this optional war in Iraq would be, quote, "short," in the sense of toppling Saddam, and there was not a need for a single foreign soldier to accomplish that mission.

But because we chose to wage this war virtually alone, we have been responsible for the aftermath virtually alone.

But there's an important caveat, I would argue, that our friends in Europe and Asia and beyond must take to heart as well. The credibility and effectiveness of alliances, treaties and international organizations depend on a willingness not only to live by the rules but to enforce them when they are violated — to enforce them when they are violated.

That could have been the basis for a common approach of our closest allies to Iraq. It is not. And both the United States and Europe have paid a heavy price and, I would argue, will pay an even heavier price.

That brings me to the second part of the approach I'm suggesting: forging a prevention strategy that allows us to defuse the threats to our security long before the only choice left to us is to act with force unilaterally or to do nothing at all.

This administration's effort to turn military preemption from an option that it always has been into a one-size-fits-all doctrine has been and remains, in my judgment, both dangerous and destabilizing.

It says to rogue states that their best insurance policy against regime change is to acquire weapons of mass destruction and do it as quickly as possible. Which is one of the reasons I believe North Korean nuclear arsenal has apparently increased by 400 percent in these past four years.

It also gives the green light to India and Pakistan, Russia and Chechnya, China, Taiwan to use force first and to ask questions later.

And it requires a standard of proof for intelligence that may be impossible to meet unless we cut corners, as President Bush did, in my view.

That is why I believe we must forge a much broader prevention strategy. Such a strategy would put much more emphasis on programs to secure and destroy loose weapons and materials in Russia and beyond.

It would fully fund Homeland Security budgets to detect and respond to terrorist attacks. It would include new international laws to seize suspect cargoes on the high seas and in international air space. It would involve a new international alliance of law enforcement experts and intelligence and financial officials to uproot terrorists and end their funding streams.

And that prevention strategy would provide a tougher nonproliferation strategy, including no-notice, on-site inspection and a reformed Non-Proliferation Treaty, which we have absolutely — well, we have missed a serious opportunity in the last several months.

It would also re-invigorate public diplomacy to explain our policies and expose the lies about America around the world and, by showing our warts and all, let people understand that there's credibility to this nation.

And it would require a sustained commitment to development and democratization to prove to people around the world that we offer hope and our enemies offer nothing but hatred, which I'll come to in a moment.

But if America commits to a policy of prevention and not preemption, we need our allies to rethink their approach on the use of force.

First, it must be clear that America's military remains second to none and that force will be used without asking permission if we believe we are in imminent danger.

But that's always been the policy.

But beyond that, we need a common understanding with our allies in Europe and Asia that every citizen of the free world faces a nexus of new threats: terrorism, rogue states and weapons that demand new responses.

Containment and deterrence are still important, and they got us through the Cold War and they make sense most of the time today. But they do not suffice when the enemy is a stateless actor with no territory or people to defend who is amassing stealthy weapons instead of amassing armies.

That's why a broad prevention strategy is so important, but it's also why our allies, and for that matter, other major powers in the U.N. Security Council must be willing to get much tougher with rogue states who harbor terrorists, seek and acquire weapons of mass destruction or pose a proliferation threat.

In the 1990s, some of you — because this is a gathering of some of the best foreign policy minds in the country in this room, some of you were very upset with me when I suggested that there are circumstances since the Treaty of Westphalia that, in fact, legitimize the United States and the rest of the world suggesting the nation has forfeited its sovereignty absent the invasion of a neighboring country.

And I remember being roundly criticized in some of the editorial pages for suggesting that when a nation is engaged in wholesale genocide, even within their own borders, they forfeit — they forfeit — their sovereignty claim.

In 1990, the U.S. and Europe agreed, with great difficulty, in the '90s, that a state in fact ultimately does cede its sovereignty when it systematically abuses the rights of its own people. And so we joined forces and reversed the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and we acted even more quickly to turn the tide in Kosovo, which I am incredibly proud as an American.

Now we should apply the same logic to states without democratic checks that seek to amass weapons of mass destruction and harbor terrorists. As a matter of fact, it's the subject of my speech to the European leadership with whom I met this past weekend in Italy.

And, believe it or not, it fell on receptive ears. They did not necessarily agree. But I would suggest, (inaudible) secretary of state, that we really should, in fact, not in theory, convene, starting with back channels and ultimately very openly serious negotiations as to what this new compact would be, what the rules of the game of the 21st century are in terms of the use of force.

In short, the U.S. should seek new international consensus that there is a duty to protect innocents and a responsibility to prevent terrible acts of destruction.

As I said, the leaders of the NATO countries, including presidents of many of the states and foreign ministers, were there. And I think there's a recognition — not a solution, but a recognition, that we have had no serious — it's amazing to me. It's absolutely breathtaking to me that we haven't had serious, serious negotiations and discussions with our NATO allies about the nature of this changed world.

Let me conclude with a few thoughts about the third piece of what I consider to be, or should be, a new approach: that is bolstering failed states and expanding democracy.

Failing states are cracks in the foundation of an international system. There have always been poor countries whose people suffer under corrupt, incompetent and ruthlessly barbaric leaders. What is new is the affect on our lives and the threat to our own security as a consequence of such regimes.

Today, the potential spread of weapons of mass destruction make that threat literally existential. We must challenge ourselves and our allies to refocus our attention, reallocate our resources and reform our institution to address this challenge.

And together, it seems to me we have to take seriously — much more seriously than we have over the last 40 years — the task of economic development. We have to commit to debt relief beyond what we have. We have to buffer countries against economic shocks. We have to give them the tools to combat corruption, and dramatically expand our investment in global education.

I believe we should reorient Bretton Woods and the U.N. to the purpose of stabilizing weak states. The United Nations is not capable of ending wars in our times, intervening in ways to prevent war most times. But it is capable — it is capable — with a new emphasis and restructuring, to stabilizing weak states. It is the single greatest resource we have, if we use it well, toward that effort.

And I think we have to lead the world in a massive effort to combat the scourge of disease, especially AIDS, but not just AIDS.

We also have to take seriously what some people in Washington, in this administration, see as a four-letter word: nation building.

This administration came to office disdaining the concept of nation building, only to be confronted with the two biggest nation-building challenges since World War II. But it has not succeeded yet, either in Afghanistan or Iraq.

We must empower now experts to plan post-conflict reconstruction ahead of time, not on the fly. We must build a standing roster of international police organizations, the gendarmerie, to handle security after tyrants are toppled. And we must create a system of rapid standup of indigenous forces, which we squandered the last two years in Iraq.

And when it comes to wars of choice, we have to think twice about initiating the conflict if we're not prepared for the post-conflict, which many of you in this room and many of us in writing, no Monday morning quarterbacking, six, eight months before the use of force, predicted there was virtually no thought given to by this administration.

And finally, there is so much the United States and the world's major democracies can do together to support democratic transformation, especially in the greater Middle East.

You know, we are rightly criticized for much of our relationship with Iran in Europe. But I pointed out to my European counterparts, I saw virtually no effort on the part of Europeans to support the democratic institutions and the democratic forces which were real, alive and heartfelt — not pro-Western, necessarily — in Iran.

So there's plenty of blame to go around. I am so much concentrating on this administration's policy for the last two years to try to get it changed, I don't want anybody in here to think that the Europeans should get a get-out-of-jail free card based upon their conduct in almost any of what we've been talking about here — I've been talking about here.

I applaud President Bush's second inaugural address about expanding freedom.

If you closed your eyes and he was a little more articulate, you'd think it was John Kennedy. If you listened to the words — I shouldn't say articulate, a little different accent, you'd think part of it was John Kennedy — about expanding freedom.

It touched a chord of many Americans because it spoke to our ideals and also to our national experience and our history.

And, clearly, a world full of liberal democracies — which will not occur, I might add, nor do I ever believe it will occur in my lifetime in Iraq no matter how well we handle things — in a world full of liberal democracies we would not only be better off for the people living in those countries, but we'd be better off because liberal democracies tend not to attack each other, abuse the rights of their own people and, in most cases, breed terrorists.

This is a goal that ought to unite the United States and other major democracies. And yet, here's how a leading German newspaper reacted to President Bush's speech in January. Quote — I'm quoting the headline. Quote, "Bush Threatens More Freedom."

Major German newspaper: "Bush Threatens More Freedom."

Clearly, dislike for the messenger undermined the appreciation of the message or else the paper is so out of whack it bears no relationship to reality.

I'm convinced we can and must find common ground in one of the most critical challenges of our time.

Americans must support the forces of progress in nondemocratic countries, not with reckless campaigns to impose democracy by force from the outside, which I don't ever recall having been done, but by working with modernizers from inside to build the institutions of democracy over the long haul — political parties, independent media, independent judiciary, transparent economies and accountable governments, modern education, NGOs in a civil society, a private sector.

Our democratic friends must fully engage in this effort as well and not give in to the cynical and wrong, in my view, that some societies are incapable of transforming themselves, which I heard repeatedly in Europe and I hear repeatedly in Europe — not throughout, not a majority view, but among some very, very bright people — they are not capable of transforming themselves no matter what help is given.

It's a hard, frustrating job, but I believe it can and must be done for our own safety's sake.

And above all, we must understand those who would spread radical fundamentalism and weapons of mass destruction may be beyond the reach of reason — we must defeat them.

But hundreds of millions of hearts and minds around the world are open to America's ideas and ideals.

I once reminded President Bush, a very religious man, that it was not the armies that toppled the walls of Jericho, it was Joshua's trumpet.

I would argue the same analogy could be made to the Berlin Wall.

Our overwhelming military force was necessary, but not sufficient. It was our ideas and our ideals permeating that part of the world that ultimately brought the wall down without a shot being fired in the process.

Ladies and gentlemen, we must reach out to this billion or more Muslim population that is fully, fully within our reach. We have no serious public diplomacy at this moment. And if we do that, if we reach out and do some of the things I've suggested, in my view as you might guess, I truly believe we can make the world a lot safer and considerably more democratic.

Let me end — I'm always quoting Irish poets and my friends kid me and say I do it because I'm Irish. That's not the reason. I do it because they are the best poets in the world.

Seamus Heaney in his poem, "The Cure at Troy," for which he won the Nobel Prize for poetry in the mid-'90s, said in one stanza, which I think should become our anthem because I believe it with every fiber in my being — we talk about all the dangers, but the opportunities.

If we are smart, if we are bright, if we are persistent and we are a little lucky and we follow our values in a tough-minded way, I really think we have a chance to change history in the margins, at least in the margins for the 21st century.

And I think a stanza from this poem should become our anthem. He said in one stanza, he said, "History says, don't hope on this side of the grave. But then once in a lifetime, that longed-for tidal wave of justice rises up and hope and history rhyme."

I, honest to God, believe, after 33 years of doing this job, we still have a shot, we still have a shot to make hope and history rhyme if we trust our people, follow our instincts and are willing to make the sacrifices necessary.

Thank you all very much.