George Bush photo

Remarks at the Aspen Institute Symposium in Aspen, Colorado

August 02, 1990

Thank you. Lod Cook, thank you so very much for that genuinely warm welcome. I've really been looking forward to coming here. To David McLaughlin, our president, and John Phelan, the chairman, I salute you for what you are doing, what you have done. To Henry Catto, our distinguished Ambassador to the Court of Saint James, I salute him and Jessica and thank them for their hospitality. I'm honored that the Governor of the State of Colorado, Governor Romer, is here today. Thank you, sir, for being with us. And to all the Aspen alumni and all our distinguished guests, many, many thanks for this warm welcome.

And of course, I've saved the piece de resistance to the very end, our very special guest, our friend, the distinguished world leader, Margaret Thatcher. It was very, very comforting to me today when I went out to try to represent you, the people of the United States, in expressing our views on the current emergency, I would say, in the Persian Gulf -- naked aggression by the State of Iraq. I felt very comforted by the fact that as I spoke Prime Minister Thatcher was there with me answering the tougher questions and standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States. Madame Prime Minister, let me say that for more than a decade now America has known no better friend of freedom anywhere in the world than you, and it's an honor to join you today.

Kind of ironic, isn't it? Washington is getting more like a three-ring circus -- and here I am -- [laughter] -- under the big tent. [Laughter] Of course, it's a special pleasure to experience the splendor of Aspen in August. The climate in Washington's tough this time of year. Lots of heat and temperatures rising. Everyone's hot under the collar. The weather's fine, but I'm talking about the budget summit. [Laughter]

I am delighted to celebrate with all of you the 40th anniversary of this most illustrious Aspen Institute. In those 40 years, the spirit of Aspen has come to signify the attempt to bridge the worlds of thought and action and, of course, to understand the tremendous changes taking place around us. Think back to the headlines 40 years ago, the time of that first Aspen conference, in 1950. North Korea roared across the 38th parallel. Klaus Fuchs was caught and convicted for revealing the secrets of the atom bomb to the Soviets. The "cold war" -- a term introduced into our political vocabulary by Bernard Baruch -- had come into its own as the shorthand to describe the halfway house of an armed and uneasy peace, a world divided, East from West. That was the world as Aspen came into being, the world Aspen sought to study, analyze, and to shape.

The 40 years since then have been a time of tremendous progress for the nations of the West, an era of unparalleled prosperity, peace, and freedom. But at the same time, we lived in a constant condition of tension, cold war and, indeed, conflict.

That world is now changing. The decades-old division of Europe is ending, and the era of democracy-building has begun. In Germany, the divided nation in the heart of a divided continent, unity is now assured as a free and full member of the NATO alliance. The Soviet Union itself is in the midst of a political and economic transformation that has brought unprecedented openness -- a process that is at once full of hope but, let's face it, still full of uncertainty.

We've entered a remarkable stage in our relationship with the Soviet Union. Just today I talked to Jim Baker in Ulan Bator. He'd just left Irkutsk. And he had very positive talks with Foreign Minister Shevardnadze. And my discussions with President Gorbachev have been open and honest. All the issues are on the table; we don't dodge the tough ones. That's been the secret to our success so far, and over time, that's how we are going to narrow our differences and seize this historic opportunity to help create lasting peace.

The changes that I'm talking about have transformed our security environment. We're entering a new era: the defense strategy and military structure needed to ensure peace can and must be different. The threat of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe launched with little or no warning is today more remote than at any other point in the postwar period. And with the emergence of democracy in Eastern Europe, the Warsaw Pact has lost its military meaning. And after more than four decades of dominance, Soviet troops are withdrawing from Central and Eastern Europe.

Our task today is to shape our defense capabilities to these changing strategic circumstances. In a world less driven by an immediate threat to Europe and the danger of global war, in a world where the size of our forces will increasingly be shaped by the needs of regional contingencies and peacetime presence, we know that our forces can be smaller. Secretary Cheney and General Powell are hard at work determining the precise combination of forces that we need. But I can tell you now, we calculate that by 1995 our security needs can be met by an active force 25 percent smaller than today's. America's Armed Forces will be at their lowest level since the year 1950.

What matters now, then, is how we reshape the forces that remain. Our new strategy must provide the framework to guide our deliberate reductions to no more than the forces we need to guard our enduring interests -- the forces to exercise forward presence in key areas, to respond effectively to crisis, to retain the national capacity to rebuild our forces should this be needed.

The United States would be ill-served by forces that represent nothing more than a scaled-back or a shrunken-down version of the forces that we possess right now. If we simply prorate our reductions, cut equally across the board, we could easily end up with more than we need for contingencies that are no longer likely, and less than we must have to meet emerging challenges. What we need are not merely reductions but restructuring.

And what we require now is a defense policy that adapts to the significant changes we are witnessing without neglecting the enduring realities that will continue to shape our security strategy, a policy of peacetime engagement every bit as constant and committed to the defense of our interests and ideals in today's world as in the time of conflict and cold war.

And in this world, America remains a pivotal factor for peaceful change. Important American interests in Europe and the Pacific, in the Mediterranean and in the Persian Gulf -- all are key reasons why maintaining a forward presence will remain an indispensable element of our strategy.

We all remember when the Soviet Union viewed our presence, that forward presence, as a threat. Indeed, when we met at Malta, at the seasick summit -- [laughter] -- President Gorbachev handed me a map -- I still have it, I still have it on display in my library -- a map purporting to show American encirclement of the Soviet Union. And we talked about this in depth. And I think he understands now that we have no intention of threatening his country. And I happen to think that it's those kinds of conversations, frankly, that we had up there at Camp David that help make such progress.

I was candid with him, and I told him that for all the positive changes we have seen, the Soviet Union remains a world-class military power. Even after the conventional arms reductions that we're now negotiating, the Soviets will continue to maintain 2 to 3 million men under arms. And of course, our number one concern: the Soviets continue to maintain and modernize their arsenal of strategic weapons.

We and our allies welcome this new course, this clearly new course that the Soviet Union has chosen. But prudence demands that we maintain an effective deterrent, one that secures the peace not only in today's climate of reduced tensions but that ensures that renewed confrontation is not a feasible option for any Soviet leadership.

The Soviets will enter a START treaty with a fully modernized, highly capable, and very large strategic force. To maintain clear and confident strategic deterrence into the next century, we need the B - 2. Secretary Cheney has already scaled back the program. Seventy-five aircraft makes strategic sense. Further delays will only increase the costs. And we need to complete the Trident program. Those 18 submarines will ensure a survivable, submarine-based deterrent. And we can defer final decisions on our land-based ICBM's [intercontinental ballistic missiles] as we see how the START talks proceed but we must keep our options open. And that means completing the development of the small ICBM and the rail-based Peacekeeper.

And finally, I am convinced that a defensive -- and I reemphasize that word -- a defensive strategic deterrent makes more sense in the nineties than ever before. What better means of defense than a system that destroys only missiles launched against us without threatening one single human life. We must push forward the great promise of SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative] and deploy it when ready.

And the United States will keep a force in Europe as long as our allies want and need us there. Prime Minister Thatcher and I have discussed this at length. We will keep forces there as long as we are wanted and needed. As we and our allies adapt NATO to a changing world, the size and shape of our forces is destined to change to suit new and less threatening circumstances. But we will remain in Europe to deter any new dangers, to be a force for stability, and to reassure all of Europe -- East and West -- that the European balance will remain secure.

Outside of Europe, America must possess forces able to respond to threats in whatever corner of the globe they may occur. Even in a world where democracy and freedom have made great gains, threats remain. Terrorism, hostagetaking, renegade regimes and unpredictable rulers, new sources of instability -- all require a strong and an engaged America.

The brutal aggression launched last night against Kuwait illustrates my central thesis: Notwithstanding the alteration in the Soviet threat, the world remains a dangerous place with serious threats to important U.S. interests wholly unrelated to the earlier patterns of the U.S.-Soviet relationship. These threats, as we've seen just in the last 24 hours, can arise suddenly, unpredictably, and from unexpected quarters. U.S. interests can be protected only with capability which is in existence and which is ready to act without delay. The events of the past day underscore also the vital need for a defense structure which not only preserves our security but provides the resources for supporting the legitimate self-defense needs of our friends and of our allies. This will be an enduring commitment as we continue with our force restructuring. Let no one, friend or foe, question this commitment.

In spite of our best efforts to control the spread of chemical and nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technologies, more nations -- more, not less -- are acquiring weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. Right now, 20 countries have the capacity to produce chemical weapons. And by the year 2000, as many as 15 developing nations could have their own ballistic missiles. In the future, even conflicts we once thought of as limited or local may carry far-reaching consequences.

To cope with the full range of challenges that we may have to confront, we must focus on readiness and on rapid response. And to prepare to meet the challenges we may face in the future, we must focus on research -- an active and inventive program of defense R&D.

Let me begin with the component with great long-range consequences: research. Time and again, we have seen technology revolutionize the battlefield. The U.S. has always relied upon its technological edge to offset the need to match potential adversaries' strength in numbers -- cruise missiles, Stealth fighters and bombers, today's "smart" weapons with the state-of-the-art guidance systems, and tomorrow's "brilliant" ones. The men and women in our Armed Forces deserve the best technology America has to offer.

And we must realize the heavy price that we will pay if we look for false economies in research and development for defense. Most modern weapons systems take a minimum of 10 years to move from the drawing board to the battlefield. The nature of national defense demands that we plan now for threats on the distant horizon. The decisions we make today, the programs we push forward or push aside will dictate the kind of military forces we have at our disposal in the year 2000 and beyond.

Second, we must focus on rapid response. As we saw in Panama, the U.S. may be called on to respond to a variety of challenges from various points on the compass. In an era when threats may emerge with little or no warning, our ability to defend our interests will depend on our speed and our agility. And we will need forces that give us a global reach. No amount of political change will alter the geographic fact that we are separated from many of our most important allies and interests by thousands of miles of water. And in many of the conflicts we could face, we may not have the luxury of matching manpower with prepositioned material. We'll have to have air- and sea-lift capacities to get our forces where they are needed, when they are needed. A new emphasis on flexibility and versatility must guide our efforts.

And finally, as we restructure, we must put a premium on readiness. For those active forces we'll rely on to respond to crises, readiness must be our highest priority. True military capability never exists on paper; it's measured in the hours spent, experience gained on the training ground, under sail, and in the cockpit. Nothing is more shortsighted than cutting back on training time to cut costs; and nothing, I might add, is more demoralizing to our troops. Our soldiers, sailors, our airmen, our marines must be well-trained, tried and tested, ready to perform every mission we ask of them.

In our restructured forces, reserves will be important, but in new ways. The need to be prepared for massive, short-term mobilization has diminished; and we can now adjust the size, structure, and readiness of our reserve forces to help us deal with the more likely challenges we will face.

Our strategy will guard against a major reversal in Soviet intentions by incorporating into our planning the concept of reconstitution of our forces. By the mid-nineties the time it would take the Soviets to return to the levels of confrontation that marked the depths of the cold war will be sufficient to allow us to rely not solely on existing forces but to generate wholly new forces. The readiness to rebuild, made explicit in our defense policy, will be an important element in our ability to deter aggression.

A rational restructuring of the kind that I've tried to outline here will take 5 years. I am confident we can meet the challenges that I've outlined today provided we proceed with an orderly reduction, not a fire sale. Any reduction of this magnitude must be managed carefully to minimize dislocations not just to the military balance but, in my view, equally as important, to the morale. And I can say right now as Commander in Chief that we will take every step possible to minimize the turbulence of these changes. The turbulence that will be created for our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. I simply will not break faith with the young men and women who have freely chosen to serve their country.

And frankly, any parents who might be under this tent, you talk to any one of the general officers, and they'll tell you that we have the finest group of young people serving at any time in the history of this country. They are absolutely superb. And they are all volunteers, every single one of them.

All of us know the challenges we face are fiscal as well as military. The budget constraints we face are very real; but so, too, is the need to protect the gains that 40 years of peace through strength have earned us. The simple fact is this: When it comes to national security, America can never afford to fail or fall short.

Let me say once again how very pleased I am to appear here today -- especially with our honored friend, Margaret Thatcher. Today, of course, is not the only time American and British leaders have shared the stage. The world remembers that day 44 years ago in Fulton, Missouri, when Churchill delivered what history calls now the Iron Curtain speech. But that wasn't what he called it. He titled it "The Sinews of Peace." And by that he meant to summon up a vision, a vision of strength of free nations united in defense of democracy.

At long last we are writing the final chapter of the 20th century's third great conflict. The cold war is now drawing to a close, and after four decades of division and discord, our challenge today is to fulfill the great dream of all democracies: a true commonwealth of free nations. To marshal the growing forces of the free world, to work together, to bring within reach for all men and nations the liberty that belongs by right to all.

Thank you very much for all you do to contribute to the deliberations that, frankly, have helped lead to a more peaceful world. It is a great honor for me to be here; and I might say, with some special pride, I brought with me one of the movers and shakers of this institute, who I'm proud to have at my right hand every day. I wished I hadn't seen him at 5 o'clock this morning. I'm talking about Brent Scowcroft, who's done such a great job for this institution -- hiding in the trees over here. But now I see firsthand what the people here at Aspen saw long ago: just how decent and honorable he is and how strong and knowledgeable. So, I would end by saluting him.

I'm sorry that the Silver Fox is not here. [Laughter] At this time of year, we're heavily in the grandchild business, and we have a sick dog. [Laughter] So, our priorities are such that she asked me to send you her love and affection and to tell you she's very sorry she's not here. And if I might say parenthetically, I'm proud of Brent, but I'm even prouder of Barbara Bush.

And I would also say -- we were faced with a lot of problems here, budget problems, problems with Iraq and Kuwait, problems of restructuring the best defense force in the entire world -- but I can't think of a more exciting time in the history of the United States to be your President. And I'm grateful. Thank you very, very much, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 3:35 p.m. in the Music Tent at the Aspen Institute. In his remarks, the President referred to Lodwrick M. Cook, David McLaughlin, and John Phelan, trustee, president, and chairman of the institute; Jessica Catto, wife of Ambassador Catto; James A. Baker III, Secretary of State; Colin L. Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Brent Scowcroft, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs.

George Bush, Remarks at the Aspen Institute Symposium in Aspen, Colorado Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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