Text of the speech:
Thank you all very much. It’s a real privilege to join you this morning on a beautiful autumn day in London. I’ve been looking forward to it.
I can’t claim to know this city well, but I have spent some time here over the years going back to the mid-Seventies when I was a flyer stationed in the U.K.
I wasn’t in such distinguished company back then – and neither were my travel companions – but it’s the same welcoming place that I remember.
Outside the States, there’s not a city in the world where an American feels more at home and I appreciate your very kind hospitality.
In a setting like this, I can’t help but think of all the far more illustrious figures who have passed through the Institute in your 183 years of history. It’s remarkable to me that the best minds of military science have been convening here since 1831.
Think of it this way: In the same decade this Institute was founded, Texas was a proud and sovereign country. Not long afterward, we became a mere state, which just goes to show you what happens when a nation lets its defenses down.
But it worked out all right, and this afternoon I bring to all of you the respect and good wishes of the people of Texas.
And I’m sure that all the armed service members and veterans of my state would want me to offer a special word of respect for the senior vice president of RUSI, who happens to be a four-star U.S. Army general. In a 38-year career, he left his mark as one of the great battle captains of our time – a military leader who measured up when everything was on the line.
Few names command more admiration and gratitude, in my country and well beyond. If it was the founding design of the Duke of Wellington to keep master tacticians always at the heart of this enterprise, you found a leader as good as they come in General David Petraeus.
I might add that the name Petraeus is known and honored in Iraq as well, as it is in Afghanistan. As are the names of such outstanding British commanders such as Lieutenant Sir Graeme Lamb, and General Sir David Richards.
So many people in Iraq knew what fate would be in store for them if the general and his forces were to fail in their mission. Everything depended on the success of that surge of operations. Our troops and all the innocent people they were trying to defend were looking at the prospect of a complete collapse of security with just about every bad actor in the region ready to move in.
That’s what the Iraqi people were spared – at least for a time. That was the achievement of a bold counterinsurgency carried out by the ablest war fighters on earth, including some of the finest of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.
If anyone had doubts back then about all that was at stake, the question is surely settled by events in Iraq and Syria today. We’re all aware of the scenes unfolding there right now. And for those of you devoted to studying the military disciplines I can hardly think of images that better confirm what a vital and worthy pursuit that is.
I’m guessing that not a person in this room needs persuading of the stakes and of the absolute need to prevail. The fate of millions and the security of our people are in the balance and all this at a time when the international order is being tested on other fronts, from the Ukrainian border to the South China Sea.
It is one thing to speak earnestly about the international order that our nations have helped to establish these past 70 years, and something else altogether to see that it is defended. That, once again, is what is required of Western nations
and the great alliances we have formed. And as you know better than I, this cause will draw heavily on our wealth, our will, and our wisdom.
The plainest imperative of all is the resources we commit to the common defense, holding nothing back if it will better assure our security. And the nations of the West had better get about it, and never take for granted our military superiority.
For us, in the present conflict, the difference that superiority makes is the difference between those people – the jihadists of ISIS – in control or in retreat.
We know what they do when they’re in control, and they try very hard to make sure we see it. In all of our conduct toward this enemy, there can be no illusions, and no compromise of all that we are defending.
Least of all we must never lose faith in the values that unite us to this day – the enduring moral inheritance that gives our nations their special strength and character.
In the Islamic State and elsewhere, these values are mocked and hated by men of different character. Their contempt and rage testifies, perhaps better than anything that you or I could say, to the rightness and truth of the values of the West.
It’s our values, after all, that lead us to spend so much effort trying to defend the lives of innocent Muslim people – whether it’s Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan today, or Kosovo in the 1990’s.
Even so, Western involvement in the Middle East has gone on for so long now, with so much complication and trial, that there’s a temptation at times to just look away and let the troubles of that region sort themselves out.
Sometimes it is even said, quite plainly, that the Middle East is ultimately no concern of ours, and in any case beyond our narrow understanding of different cultures and faiths.
The great error, as some see it, is any attempt to apply our Western values to whatever might occur in places so foreign and so far away. Follow this reasoning far enough, and you get questions like: Who are we to say how women and children should be treated in another culture?
What looks to us like bullying, subjugation, or worse, is held by others to be divinely mandated, and some say we are just trying to impose our own standards where they don’t belong.
Whether it’s Britain or America, moreover, there are always people ready to insist that our societies could stand some improvement too – that we have our own injustices to correct.
Such a posture of moral equivalence is seen now and then on the Left, and sometimes even at the U.N. – an institution founded on Western ideals. And it pretends not to see the most basic of distinctions.
The shortcomings of Western democracies, the systematic savagery of the enemy – to a certain way of thinking, it all gets mixed up as one. They’ve got bad guys over there, we’ve got a few of our own – what’s the difference?
This attitude of cultural relativism certainly doesn’t approve of harsh or violent practices imposed elsewhere, but does question the right of Britain, the United States, or other Western powers to do anything about it.
Now leave aside the threat of mass-casualty attacks in our own countries that our terrorist enemies abroad are forever talking about. And leave aside the strategic commitments, crucial interests, and close friends that our nations have in the Middle East. These include some very brave friends who, without us, would soon face the most desperate circumstances.
Even if you set all that aside, the attitudes I’m describing reflect a deep confusion at a time when moral clarity is at a premium. And this confusion can weaken the confidence we need in our own values – the values of Western Civilization.
In the Islamic State, and all that goes with it, we’re dealing with a particular breed of fanaticism that leaves us with few options. And the short of it is that we have every right to judge, and every reason to act.
Watching scenes from Iraq and Syria lately, in fact, let me tell you what really strikes me. It’s not the differences in culture, it’s the commonality that should speak to us most. Such vast suffering has been inflicted on the people of that region. Who can look upon such scenes and think, “How very different they are from us”?
I think of whole villages emptying out at the approach of these so-called religious warriors of ISIS. Imagine the raw fear of the Yazidis, those thousands of people chased up a mountain this summer and saved just in time by allied air strikes.
We know exactly what they escaped by the fate of those who didn’t. The enslavement, the beheadings, the crucifixions, the mass executions, the forced conversions. And all of this, of course, by men who tell themselves they are doing God’s work on this earth.
Who cannot identify with a mother or father running with their babies from this horror, with an elderly woman struggling to keep up with the others, with the children who got away, but saw what happened to their parents?
There are men and women alive in Britain today, elderly survivors of the blitz, who can recall just what the experience is like. The victims of jihad today have far more in common with you and me than they ever could with their tormentors.
And when they look up and see an RAF, Danish, or American bomber coming in, they feel precisely as you and I would feel. That sight must seem like the answer to a prayer, a prayer that can be expressed in every faith: “Save my family, save my home, save my village, save me, from this evil.”
There’s not a Middle Eastern cultural standard that allows for the atrocities committed by ISIS – any more than there is some North Korean custom that allows for concentration camps or mass starvation. And when the radical Islamists, or their apologists in Britain or Europe, claim to speak for any respectable culture or creed, we should not indulge that lie for a moment. Their twisted version of Islam amounts to a creed of human cruelty – pure sadism, and nothing more.
It matters that we understand all of this, for one reason especially: Without confidence in the truth and goodness of our own values, the great moral inheritance of our own culture, how are we going to deal with the falsehood of theirs?
This is not a rhetorical question. It’s a quite practical and pressing question, as you well know. When a guy apparently educated in the U.K. executes bound men on their knees in the Mesopotamian desert for all the world to see you know you’ve got a problem. And you’re not alone.
That few minutes of video was another glimpse of a disturbing situation, and of a serious challenge that we had all better get right.
A fair-minded response begins by acknowledging what we all know to be true. In the nations of the West today, we have many Muslims who live in the spirit in which they or their parents were first welcomed. They immigrated in search of an open, tolerant, peaceful way of life. And why? Usually because they had seen the exact opposite in the countries they left behind.
When they look abroad and see the merciless crimes of ISIS and the like they react as some leading British Muslims have done in each case, with unreserved condemnation. They know barbarism when they see it. They are people of conscience and character, and whether it’s London, England, or Dallas, Texas, such men and women are right where they belong, and the equals of any other subject or citizen.
And then there are those who act in an altogether different spirit. News of a terrorist attack abroad is the occasion, in some quarters, for celebration. Authorities investigate some state schools, only to discover that they are being taken over by Islamic radicals. A young British woman, in the Luton neighborhood where she grew up, can find herself harangued by the same type of people, insulting her country and calling her filthy names.
Likewise, radicals confront strangers on the street, telling them to get out of, quote, “Islamic areas.” What do they want, in those corners where extremists are gaining the upper hand?
They want, and actually expect, the ways of the sharia code to replace British law and British liberty. Similar groups and intentions can be found on the Continent, where extremists treat French law, Dutch law, Belgian law, German law, and in general European standards all with equal contempt.
“No-go zones,” an odd term we’re hearing lately, doesn’t fit well in the vocabulary of Western societies. Yet suddenly, here are closed enclaves in great cities where you’re not welcome unless you’re part of the group. You have to be a fellow fanatic in good standing, or at very least a fellow Muslim.
And, of course, we all know who’s especially unwelcome in these nasty little no-go zones – a Jew.
The hatreds of unassimilated radicals only draw further attention to anti-Semitism in general. It’s a familiar problem in a new time. In Europe it ranges, as in times past, from thuggish abuse to desecration to commentaries on Israel that cover crude dislike in the veneer of respectable opinion.
There is a way to deal with anti-Semitism, and it’s not by smiling politely and hoping that it goes away. The full force of law, when people and property are harmed, is only the most obvious response.
Just as important is what Chancellor Merkel did a few weeks ago, to her great credit, when she called this sin by its name. She has stated in confident, unmistakable terms that tolerance ends where anti-Semitism begins.
It shaped Europe’s past, in ways that everyone regrets and no nation can afford to let it shape Europe’s future. What all of these various hate groups have in common is a disdain for, and a wish to destroy, our Western way of life.
And someone needs to tell them that the meeting has already been held. It was decided, democratically, long ago – and by the way through great and heroic sacrifice – that our societies will be governed by Western values and Western laws.
Among those values are openness and tolerance. But to every extremist, it has to be made clear: we will not allow you to exploit our tolerance, so that you can import your intolerance. We will not let you destroy our peace with your violent ideas. If you expect to live among us, and yet plan against us, to receive the protections and comforts of a free society, while showing none of its virtues or graces, then you can have our answer now: No, not on our watch!
You will live by exactly the standards that the rest of us live by. And if that comes as jarring news: then welcome to civilization.
Forbearance in the face of vicious ideas and conduct is not tolerance. It is weakness. It is to cooperate in one’s own decline. It signals a lack of confidence in truths and ideals that are great, not only because they are Western, but because they are universal.
There is no place on earth where the principle of human equality does not apply and will not make life better. There is no society that will not fare better if its institutions are built on the consent of the governed, and uphold the rights and dignity of the individual. And maybe the greatest advantage we have with our Western ideals is that they are ideals, and not just prideful, suffocating dogma.
So much of the moral tradition we share is aspirational. So much of our history has been a quest to learn and discover, starting in humble recognition of things unknown. And if these Western values of ours have been an improving influence on the life of man over these many centuries, it is because those values instill a yearning and a hope to be better and to do better by others.
They are outward-looking ideas, lifting our sights beyond the tribe and the group to see the worth and goodness of everyone, to respect others, to empathize with them, and to include them in the progress of humanity.
You don’t find all that in every tradition. Its abundance in our Western tradition is to be cherished, tended, and protected. And as I say that, I realize that even a proud, patriotic Texan has got nothing to teach the British people about defending freedom.
Sometimes, it takes a friendly outsider to come by and point out the obvious.
In the case of your country, you might not always appreciate something: When we in America think of enduring Western values — when we think of so many qualities that we admire and love in our culture — we think of you, the people of this island.
It’s not just because to an American, you British always sound so darned smart and refined, no matter what you’re saying. And it’s not just because of your many cultural exports: from James Bond and Julie Andrews to Simon Cowell and One Direction. Let’s just say it’s been a mixed bag.
We Americans feel this affinity, and we admire you as we do no other nation, because of who you are and what you stand for.
So many good things in the world began in Britain. So many good things to this day depend on Britain.
For Americans, there is no surer sign that we are in the right cause than when our two countries are in common cause.
May it ever be so, as it was for our parents, that we have the courage of our best ideals, the confidence to serve great purposes, and the wisdom to go forward together.
Thank you very much.
This speech was given on October 14, 2014 at the Royal United Services Institute in London.