By Katherine Burgess
Robert M. Gates, former secretary of defense, painted a bleak picture of international events Oct. 4 at Union University’s 15th annual Scholarship Banquet. However, Gates said he believes Americans have the character necessary to overcome the obstacles they face.
About 1,500 faculty, students, community members and donors attended the event, raising more than $500,000 for scholarships.
Gates served as 22nd secretary of defense from 2006 to 2011 under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. He also was director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1991 to 1993, was president of Texas A&M University for four years and now is chancellor of the College of William and Mary.
Gates drew on his experiences, addressing a world that is “becoming more complex, more turbulent and, in some instances, more dangerous.”
He commended universities such as Union for teaching young people integrity, faith and kindness — traits necessary for this country.
“Whether the United States sustains our global economic, political and military preeminence will depend not on the actions of other countries, on what others do, but on what we choose to do,” Gates said. “It will depend on our character as a people, the sacrifices we are going to accept, and the courage and unity we demonstrate.”
Gates addressed parts of the world important for national security, including China, a country that could alter the balance of power in the Pacific as it invests in new military capabilities.
However, Gates said China’s reliance on exports is unsustainable as other countries founder in unstable economies.
Political protests and a rising middle class are further destabilizing China’s government, even as old resentments could send China into confrontations at sea and on disputed islands, possibly involving the U.S.
“There is no fundamental geo-strategic reason for the United States and China to be enemies,” Gates said. “But one thing is clear: if we treat China as an enemy, it surely will become one.”
Iran also is playing an increasing role in the world as it strives for nuclear weapons capability, Gates said.
If Israel were to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, people in the Muslim world would see those actions as sanctioned by the U.S.
“It’s hard to overestimate Iran’s ability to dramatically worsen the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Syria,” Gates said, also pointing out that Iran could disrupt oil shipments throughout the Persian Gulf.
The only way to deter Iran would be increased economic pressure and political isolation so its leadership would cease pursuing nuclear weapons.
Gates added that in Afghanistan, despite setbacks, the U.S. is closer to achieving its goal of enabling the Afghan government to contain the Taliban.
“We must not lose sight of how much has been accomplished in the last two years [in Afghanistan], at great sacrifice,” he said.
Of the Arab Spring, Gates said the future looks dim.
“Too often we forget that real freedom, freedom that endures, is not assured simply by holding one free election,” Gates said. “It is the result of building democratic institutions, of enforcing the rule of law, of creating a civil society – and there isn’t a single Arab country that has these basic building blocks.”
While global events are sobering, Gates said he remains “optimistic” about the future of the U.S.
I believe the fate of our nation in the years to come and the future of the world itself depends on the kind of people we modern Americans prove to be and, above all, the kinds of citizens our young people will become,” Gates said.
Kylie McDonald, senior political science major and SGA president, met Gates before the banquet and listened to his presentation.
“He’s obviously a very educated, very intelligent man,” McDonald said afterward. “He was quick on his feet, obviously very well versed in international relations and I thought had a lot of good insights into international issues that Obama or Romney is going to be facing in the next couple of years.”
Landon Preston, director of donor relations, said Gates was chosen to speak because of his expertise.
“We felt he was a great person who would provide the Union community a unique and balanced outlook on the state of global affairs,” Preston said. “Also, his experience in higher education makes him someone who keenly understands the significance of higher education in global affairs.”