JACKSON, Tenn. – Oct. 5, 2012 – Despite a sobering analysis of affairs in such places as China and the Middle East, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he remains “fundamentally optimistic” about the future of the United States.
“Even though the United States faces enormous obstacles, most of them are self-inflicted, and we also have the power and the means to overcome them, just as America has done in the past,” Gates said Oct. 4 at Union University’s 15th annual Scholarship Banquet. “It will take real leadership, political will, shared sacrifice and a willingness to compromise.”
Gates, who served as defense secretary for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, was the keynote speaker for the annual event at the Carl Perkins Civic Center, which raised about $500,000 for student scholarships.
Prior to his role leading the Defense Department, Gates was president of Texas A&M University for four years. He served in the Central Intelligence Agency for nearly 27 years, including nine years at the National Security Council. He was CIA director from 1991-1993. Gates now serves as chancellor of the College of William and Mary.
With a background in higher education, Gates talked about the influence that institutions like Union University can have in the lives of young people.
While some Union graduates could become important business and political leaders or make other noteworthy contributions, Gates said that for most Union students, their experience at the university “is an important step toward the most important goal of all – becoming a good man or woman, a person of faith, integrity and decency, a person of moral courage, not afraid of hard work, of strong character, the kind of person who built this country and made it into the greatest democracy and the greatest economic powerhouse in the history of the world. “
Union prepares its graduates to live lives based on unchanging values, Gates said, such as faith, trustworthiness, loyalty, honesty and kindness – characteristics that are often in short supply today, with too many people seeking riches and power without regard to doing what’s right or decent.
Gates spent the bulk of his address focusing on global issues of importance. He said that anxiety about the upcoming presidential election is in order because of the high stakes involved, and acknowledged that a majority of Americans have lost faith in the nation’s governing institutions.
But while many Americans are largely focused on domestic problems, Gates said the rest of the world is becoming more complex and more turbulent all the time.
He discussed the impact of China on global trade and the security implications of China’s growth. China, Gates said, is investing trillions of dollars in new military capabilities and technologies that could alter the balance of power in the Pacific.
“Yet in spite of China’s continuing growth and growing influence, its leadership continues to exhibit paranoia and hypersensitivity to the smallest international criticism or internal political challenge,” Gates said. “I believe that’s because China’s leaders are keenly aware that the country’s bullish macroeconomic numbers conceal major underlying weaknesses.”
Among those weaknesses, Gates cited China’s dependence upon exports that are becoming increasingly difficult to sustain and a middle class that is growing more politically engaged and more intolerant of rampant corruption in the governing class.
Though the United States has reasons to be concerned about various situations in China, Gates said there was no “geostrategic reason” for China to be an enemy.
“If we treat China as an enemy, it will surely become one,” he warned. Gates also addressed developments with the Iranian nuclear program, which Israel sees as a more direct and immediate threat than the United States does. Though Israel doesn’t have the military capabilities to destroy all of Iran’s buried nuclear facilities at a long range, he said the Israelis may feel compelled to strike, an event that could have tragic consequences.
“Let there be no mistake,” he said. “An Israeli attack would be seen in the region and in the Muslim world more broadly as being sanctioned and underwritten by the United States, with the same consequences that would attach to a direct American strike.” Even with all the challenges facing the United States both domestically and internationally, Gates said whether the nation sustains its global, economic, political and military preeminence will depend not on the actions of other countries, but on the actions of Americans themselves.
“It will depend on our character as a people, the sacrifices we are willing to accept and the courage and unity we demonstrate,” Gates said. “I believe we will prove worthy.”
The annual Scholarship Banquet has become one of the premier events in West Tennessee each year, and is Union’s primary fund raising event for its student scholarship fund. Previous speakers have included George H.W. Bush, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, Condoleezza Rice, Mikhail Gorbachev, Laura Bush, Rudolph Giuliani and Colin Powell, among others.
All told, Union’s Scholarship Banquets have generated about $5.5 million for student scholarships.