Sunday, December 14, 2008

Robert Gates, multilateralist in chief

It's often been noted that in its second term the Bush Administration has quietly walked back the arrogant unilateralism that was its first-term signature.

Much of the multilateral restoration has doubtless occurred under the radar. Much is the result of the balance-tipping gene-splice from the administration of Bush Sr. that occurred with the advent of Robert Gates as defense secretary (Cheney and Rice, not to say Wolfowitz, were also part of Bush Sr.'s team, but with Cheney and Rumsfeld dominant, the offspring was aberrant).

A speech Gates delivered yesterday (Dec. 13) in Bahrain highlights the strategic emphasis he places on a worldwide web of formal and informal multinational cooperative ventures. The heart of the speech was an appeal to the enlightened interest of Gulf states to re-engage with Iraq diplomatically and economically and to work together to seal its borders and curb Iran's influence. In a sense, though, Gates more fully communicated his brand of multilateralism while recommending more low profile and quotidian joint efforts:
The final topic I want to discuss is related to what I've already mentioned: regional security through venues like the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Gulf Security Dialogue. While the GCC and the GSD cover a wide range of issues - from trade and energy infrastructure security to counter-terrorism and regional stability - I want to focus on two in particular: air and maritime security.

Along with the traditional challenges facing our nations, there is a range of diverse, unconventional threats that transcend national borders. Some are ancient - such as piracy, ethnic strife, and poverty. Others are of more recent vintage: terrorist networks harnessing new technologies; weapons proliferation; environmental degradation; and the emergence of deadly and contagious diseases that can spread more rapidly than ever before in human history.

What these challenges have in common is that they simply cannot be overcome by one, or even two countries, no matter how powerful or wealthy. They require multiple nations acting with uncommon unity.

That is particularly true of air defenses and maritime security - areas where multi-national cooperation is not just a preference, but a necessity.

The momentum from last year's Gulf Security Dialogue meetings led to significant progress in air and missile defense throughout the Middle East. Several Gulf Cooperation Council nations are in the process of acquiring, or have expressed interest in, Shared Early Warning - near real-time information on air and missile attacks that would allow maximum time for a nation to defend itself.

Additionally, all GCC countries have expressed a desire to obtain, or are already obtaining, active defense systems. These procurements demonstrate the GCC's commitment to regional security and interoperability with each other and the United States.

The need for increased maritime security - and potentially new and better means of cooperation - has been highlighted by the recent, high-profile acts of piracy off the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden. As with terrorism, piracy is a problem that has serious international implications - and should be of particular concern to any nation that depends on the seas for commerce.

Earlier this year, the United States Fifth Fleet, based here in Bahrain, established a Maritime Security Patrol Area in the Gulf of Aden and is leading an international coalition to keep shipping lanes safe. I thank Saudi Arabia for agreeing to support the effort and encourage other nations to do so.

Given the vast coastal areas of Somalia and Kenya - more than one million square miles - there are limits to patrolling alone. More must be done.
  • Under the United Nations Security Council resolution passed last week, members of the international community must work together to aggressively pursue and deter piracy.
  • Companies and ships must be more vigilant about staying in recommended traffic corridors - and should consider increasing their security personnel and non-lethal defensive capabilities.
  • New efforts for countries represented here might include developing a maritime surface picture and standard operating procedures against seaborne threats beyond just piracy - such as terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and smuggling.
All told, multinational efforts like these are encouraging. They bolster the defensive capabilities of everyone involved, while not diminishing pre-existing bilateral or multilateral relationships.

They are, I believe, a model for how all of us can better address the challenges of the 21st century by fostering cooperation between and among the nations of the Gulf.

Let me close with a personal observation. In preparing to - at some point - retire from government service, I have been pondering all I have seen since joining the United States government in 1966. There have been good times and bad times - great successes, and haunting failures. Yet, despite the challenges, no matter how tough the problems, I have always been amazed by the ability of many nations of the world to come together and get the big things right.
Gates presents multinational cooperation as both a long tradition -- something "I have always been amazed by" -- and as a newly urgent imperative, in that the theats of the day "require multiple nations acting with uncommon unity."

In this speech as in Gates' speaking and writing generally, there is a complex interplay -- a striving for "balance" -- between innovation and continuity. Constant twin themes are the need to break through bureaucratic inertia--particularly at the Pentagon--to prepare for tomorrow's threats, and the need to remain true to a multi-decade foreign policy consensus to which his memoir of service to six presidents, From the Shadows, is a kind of extended paean. That consensus, as he presents it, on the whole struck a balance (notwithstanding some dreadful mistakes) between U.S. strength and leadership on the one hand and multilateral cooperation on the other -- between hard and soft power.

At times, Gates' calls for balance seem to include muted repudiations of the one Administration since World War II that I believe he sees as rejecting that consensus -- that of W.'s first term. One such implicit repudiation is quoted above: What these challenges have in common is that they simply cannot be overcome by one, or even two countries, no matter how powerful or wealthy. They require multiple nations acting with uncommon unity.

The interplay between innovation and continuity is present in the part of this speech that received the most attention, Gates' counterpoint to Biden's notorious warning that some nation or other would seek to test Obama shortly after he takes office:
I bring from President-elect Obama a message of continuity and commitment to our friends and partners in the region. Though the American political process is at times tumultuous - and our open and vigorous debates might seem to indicate deep divisions - I can assure you that a change in administration does not alter our fundamental interests, especially in the Middle East. Throughout my career in government - which began over 42 years ago - the security of the Gulf has been a central concern of every administration for which I have worked. That will not change, especially considering the great challenges we all face - from the need to defeat violent extremism to the necessity of forging a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians that will allow everyone in that region to live in peace and prosperity.

I had thought that my remarks would be a valedictory and farewell, but that was not to be. The President-elect asked me to stay on as Secretary of Defense and, as you know, I accepted. I am honored to continue leading the Department of Defense, and am doing everything in my power to ensure a smooth transition. On that note, I should mention that more extensive planning has been done across the government in preparation for this transition than at any time I can remember - and I have worked for seven presidents, soon to be eight. So anyone who thought that the upcoming months might present opportunities to "test" the new administration would be sorely mistaken. President Obama and his national security team, myself included, will be ready to defend the interests of the United States and our friends and allies from the moment he takes office on January 20th.
Unprecedented continuity is the oxymoron here. A transition more thorough than any other. That oddly captures Obama's brand of "change," which Obama always casts as back to the future -- a restoration of balance, a new drive to fulfill old ideals.

Related posts:
Son of Bush Sr.? Obama prepares for state-Croft
Gates repudiates Rumsfeld's "army you have" doctrine
Gates at West Point: 3 principles we've violated?

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