Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Natadola, Fiji

Thank you, Admiral Aquilino, for inviting me to this essential conversation—and thank you to all of the Chiefs of Defense, Senior Enlisted Leaders, and family members for joining us here today in gorgeous Fiji. I hope that amidst the many conversations we’re having about securing peace, you’re getting some time to go outside and actually feel the blessings of peace and tranquility for yourselves.

I would like to start by thanking each of you for dedicating your life to serving your country. Each of you would have had tremendous opportunities to work in a range of different fields, and yet somewhere along the way, quite a long time ago, you decided to dedicate your lives to service, and in joining your militaries, made clear that you were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice if it meant protecting your respective countries.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the conversations happening here today. The gravity of the work happening at this conference hits home for me for many reasons, but one of them is that my father-in-law, Dick Sunstein, served in World War II in the Philippines, where he narrowly escaped being killed on several occasions. In one instance, he evaded sniper fire, while driving a jeep. In another, the boat 100 yards away from his was blown up. Had he not been fortunate on these occasions, or perhaps if the war had lasted longer and his luck had eventually run out, my husband Cass Sunstein would never have been born, and nor of course would our two children Declan and Rían.

When I was nominated by President Obama to become United States Ambassador to the UN, my husband remembered a letter that his father had written his mother from a short furlough he was taking in San Francisco in April 1945. By pure coincidence Dick Sunstein found himself in San Francisco at the very time delegates from around the world were convening to discuss the possible creation of a new international organization to prevent future conflict. Thousands of delegates and advisors from 50 nations spanning every inhabited continent descended on the city, trailed by thousands more radio and newspaper journalists waiting with breathless anticipation to tell the world the outcome of the discussions.

In that moment, it really was an open question whether countries would be able to establish a rules-based international order, find peaceful ways to resolve disputes, and make the investments in stability that were needed to stop the cycles of violence that had defined the previous decades.

“Conference starts today,” Dick Sunstein wrote to his wife, my mother-in-law. “The town is going wild with excitement. It is a pleasure to be here for the opening few days. Let’s pray that they accomplish something.”

It strikes me now, looking out at this room, how hopeful a sight this would seem to him: military leaders – many of whose nations were once at war with one another, some of whom today disagree on land or sea boundaries, or find themselves on opposite sides of fierce debates over the shape of today’s world order – coming together to engage one another, to discuss shared challenges, and to see where common ground can be forged in service of what remains the most noble and necessary of all objectives: lasting peace among nations and peoples.

Today, I want to do three things: briefly describe how the main elements of American foreign policy fit together, introduce you to the range of work that USAID does around the world, and describe how defense and development actors can work together to combat perhaps the greatest threat to lasting peace: the existential threat of climate change.

Diplomacy, Defense, and Development (the 3 Ds)

In the United States, we carry out three essential lines of effort in our foreign policy, each in service of promoting U.S. national security.

The first is diplomacy—our work, currently led by Secretary of State Blinken, to develop constructive, mutually beneficial relationships with nations around the world, to build coalitions to tackle transnational challenges, and to negotiate an end to economic, territorial and other disputes.

The second, of course, is defense—the work you all lead around the world, which in the United States is currently led by Secretary of Defense Austin, and, in the Indopacific, Admiral Aquilino.

And the third is development—the work I have the privilege of leading at the U.S. Agency for International Development, an agency created by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

USAID’s Humanitarian and Development Work

Some of you may have encountered USAID in a time of conflict or natural disaster. USAID is the lead USG responder to emergencies. Sometimes, we request the unique capabilities from our own Department of Defense—to get lifesaving support to communities that might not be reached – or reached more slowly–through a strictly civilian response.

I just came from Papua New Guinea where volcanic activity in Bougainville Island has affected 10,000 people and led to the displacement of nearly 4,000. At the beginning of this month, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand responded to a request for international assistance from the PNG authorities. They have since been involved in an operation that involves impressive coordination. Getting supplies to Bougainville presents serious logistical challenges, because it requires a 700-mile flight and bulk carrying-capacity to transport pallets to the main airstrip and supply warehouses on the island, but also highly nimble last mile capabilities to move those supplies out into the hard-to-reach places on the island where evacuated civilians have arrived. Australia’s and New Zealand’s fixed-wing planes are taking supplies from places like Port Moresby, and in a kind of humanitarian relay effort, they are passing the baton to U.S. Marine V-22 Ospreys positioned on the AMERICA carrier just off the coast of Buka. Those Ospreys are picking up those supplies and flying them to communities who are sheltering in places that would otherwise be very difficult—if not impossible—to reach.

But while emergency response work is vitally important and probably visible to many of you, the vast majority of USAID’s investments are in fact in development: in supporting our partners around the world  build stable, prosperous, healthy communities—and, in doing so, improve life expectancy, strengthen accountable governance and the rule of law, fuel inclusive economic growth, and help prevent conflicts from breaking out.

Let me offer a few examples of some of the impactful partnerships USAID has forged over the years with the nations represented in this room.

In the early 1960s, the Republic of Korea emerged from decades of conflict as one of the poorest nations on the planet. USAID not only offered humanitarian assistance, but supported South Koreans in growing their economy. USAID helped train thousands of young people in economics programs in the U.S.—many of whom eventually went on to take up leadership roles in the South Korean government. We offered technical assistance to civil servants to build out the less exciting aspects of governance, like budgeting and revenue collection. And USAID worked directly with South Korean businesses to help connect their goods with international markets.

The Republic of Korea is now, of course, one of the most advanced economies in the world and a major contributor to regional security. Not only do they no longer receive development assistance, but their own development agency, the Korea International Cooperation Agency, invested nearly three billion dollars last year in health, education, and infrastructure in developing nations. Moreover, President Yoon has committed to more than double the Republic of Korea’s development assistance budget by 2030.

In the lobby of the Korea International Cooperation Agency is a bag of flour South Korea received back in the 1940s, marked with the words “From the American People”—a constant reminder of the difference that development assistance can make.

Investments we make in one country can often yield benefits in others. Take food security. In India, starting in the 1960s, we worked with scientists and local farmers to develop and distribute high yield, resilient seeds. Over the next two decades, those seeds helped to increase rice production in India by 50 percent and wheat production by 230 percent, ending a cycle of recurring famine and helping kick off a Green Revolution that boosted agricultural yields in other parts of the world. Now India is expanding efforts to extend insights from its remarkable development progress to countries well beyond its borders.

In the global health domain, USAID has helped to eradicate smallpox and nearly eradicate polio; to turn the tide against HIV/AIDS and Malaria; and most recently, to help countries move beyond the Covid-19 emergency. During the pandemic, we got millions of shots in arms across the Pacific: 33 million Covid vaccines to the Philippines, 40 million to Vietnam, 42 million to Indonesia, 114 million to Bangladesh. All of this is part of the 688 million vaccines the United States donated globally.

I could give countless more examples of our work in partnership with your countries – cleaning up soil in Vietnam that was contaminated by dioxins by the U.S. use of Agent Orange in the U.S.-Vietnam War, while also helping farmers in the Mekong adapt to unpredictable weather and devastating salination. Building domestic disaster response capacity in the Philippines to ensure the country has the ability to respond to and recover from the majority of disasters that affect it without foreign assistance.

USAID provides its assistance in the form of grants, not loans. Our goal is not to create dependence on the United States, but to help communities build their own power and self-reliance.

We make these investments because of our fundamental belief in the dignity of all people. But we also see them as essential security investments. As Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis famously stated when he was Commander of U.S. Central Command, we must fully fund our diplomatic and development efforts—because if we don’t, our military will need to buy more bullets.

The fact is, development efforts take on the underlying destabilizing factors that we know lead to violence and threaten the peace: resource scarcity, lack of economic opportunity, weak governance or corruption, the treatment of specific groups as marginal or lesser. Reduce these risk factors, and we reduce the risk of conflict.

At the same time, development investments are our frontline defenses against those nonmilitary threats that cost lives just the same—like natural disasters and disease outbreaks.

When we invest in advancing prosperity, health, and basic dignity, we create a more stable and peaceful world for all of us.

Deepening USAID Engagement in the Pacific

And now, as the United States deepens our commitment to security in the Pacific, we are expanding our investments across all these lines of effort—diplomacy, defense, and development.

As I mentioned, I was just in Papua New Guinea before traveling to Fiji, and, while I was the first USAID administrator to visit PNG, I was only the latest in a string of high-level visitors.  Indeed, by the time I got there, Secretary Blinken had visited the country on behalf of President Biden to meet with Pacific Islands Forum leaders and sign a Defense Cooperation Agreement in May, and Secretary Austin had visited to work towards implementing that agreement in July. All of this is a clear signal of the ways we are upping our diplomatic engagement, defense collaboration, and – with me opening a new USAID country office in PNG on Monday and a new USAID mission in Fiji yesterday – development assistance in the region.

These expanded investments by USAID fulfill the commitment made by President Biden at last year’s historic Summit with Pacific Islands leaders. They are, of course, hardly the beginning of our engagements here—in the past decade, the United States has invested $1.5 billion in the Pacific islands, with $500 million of that investment coming from USAID. But our expanded presence will create more opportunities for us to substantially boost our development investments.

Preparing for Battles against Natural Forces

This brings me to my third topic, one that I know is on all of your minds: the threat posed by climate change. In my travels to the Pacific since I became USAID administrator back in 2021, I start by asking communities and leaders what their priorities are: again and again, I hear a version of the same answer: climate change, climate change, climate change. They say, “we have to find a way to prevent climate change from taking lives and destroying livelihoods.” They are consumed with the recognition that a warming planet is undermining the development progress we have made and already in many places preventing the economic progress we seek.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue last year, Fiji’s former Minister of Defense Inia Seruiratu put it bluntly. “In our blue Pacific continent,” he said, “machine guns, fighter jets, grey ships and green battalions are not our primary security concern. The single greatest threat to our very existence is climate change.”

And it is not just the island nations of the Pacific for whom this crisis is existential. Climate change presents a particular threat throughout the entire Indo-Pacific. Temperatures are rising two times faster in Asia than the global average. The Asia-Pacific has the dubious distinction of being the most disaster-prone region in the world.

So, as you all well know, the emergency that will more and more often be calling armies into action will not be an invading force at our borders, but a devastating heat wave, like the once-in-200-years heat that swept across Southeast Asia a few months ago. It will be a super typhoon, like the Doksuri Typhoon that recently bombarded the Philippines, Taiwan, and China, causing the highest recorded rainfall in Beijing in 140 years. It will be a raging wildfire, like the blaze that killed at least 99 people just days ago as it tore through the island of Maui in Hawaii—becoming the deadliest wildfire in our nation’s history. Our thoughts are with the families of all those mourning the loss of their loved ones, their homes, and their communities in the wake of these horrific disasters. And we are incredibly grateful – and moved – by the offers of assistance we have received from all around the world, including – during his welcome speech at this CHOD conference yesterday – from Prime Minister Rabuka, who offered the support of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces to help with relief efforts and clean up in Maui. I want to thank you, Major General Kalouniwai, and the entire Fijian government, for your gracious offer during our hour of need.

We call events like the sudden wildfire rampage “climate shocks.” But there comes a moment when we must ask one another whether we can truly call them shocks, if they are happening at such a frequency.

We cannot continue to be shocked. We need to be ready—applying that same preparation and vigor that we do when conflicts loom.

A few weeks ago, USAID signed an agreement with the Australian government to preposition humanitarian relief supplies in the Pacific. We’ll store emergency response supplies at warehouses in Australia and in Papua New Guinea, so that we can help quickly supply local and regional responders—often militaries like yours—with the supplies they need.

And later today, in Nabila Village, I’ll be touring a “Makerspace” run by a nonprofit called Field Ready and funded by USAID. This makerspace is equipped with tools to produce critical relief supplies right on the spot—using tools like 3D printers to produce parts for items like water pumps and solar panels, which can often break during disasters and be difficult to replace in an emergency. Producing these supplies locally is an especially important initiative in the Pacific Islands, where assistance sometimes can’t reach remote communities without boats or airplanes.

We are also investing in building disaster warning capabilities and training more first responders throughout the Indo-Pacific region. In fact, after receiving USAID training, first responders in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan already stepped up to support nations in other parts of the world in need, for example helping Turkey respond to the devastating earthquake.

As we invest in building our collective capacity, we won’t just improve our resilience as individual nations—we’ll build emergency response capacity for the whole region.

Communicating that Resilience is Security

But of course, there is so much we need to do beyond emergency response to meet the climate threat. And in speaking clearly about the security threats posed by climate change, you can be some of the world’s most powerful advocates for the investments we need to take on this crisis.

Because the security threats posed by climate change, of course, go far beyond natural disasters themselves. Climate change also fuels conflict.

It creates competition for urgently needed resources. Just months ago, a dispute over rights to the water flowing from the Helmand River in Afghanistan caused a deadly dispute at the border between Afghanistan and Iran.

The climate crisis is also driving mass displacement. Tens of millions of people are being forced to flee their homes every year—creating masses of people vulnerable to exploitation and radicalization. The number of people forced to leave their homes because of climate change could top 200 million by 2050—a displacement crisis like nothing the world has ever seen.

Taking on this crisis is of course going to require investment and cooperation on a truly unprecedented scale—both to decarbonize economies, and to build the resilience of communities on the front lines of this crisis.

Here in Fiji alone, the government has identified 600 communities that may be forced to move, with 42 of these communities already at urgent risk of having their homes destroyed.

Relocating these communities is going to require enormous development work—to get clean water and electricity to new places, to rebuild homes and schools and hospitals, and to preserve the traditions tied profoundly to the homes where they developed over millennia.

Since 2016, USAID’s Climate Ready program has worked directly with local leaders across the Pacific Islands to help them get the resources and training they need to lead adaptation efforts like these. By working with them to shape successful financing proposals, we helped connect them to over $500 million in adaptation financing.

And two years ago, at COP26, President Biden announced the PREPARE call to action to boost investments in climate resilience around the world, committing $3 billion in annual investment to help more than half a billion people in developing countries adapt to the impacts of climate change by 2030.

But really, this is just the beginning. And while we’ve seen some important regional leadership and cooperation here we have also recently seen climate conversations with key countries stall.

Here I would like to appeal to each of you: Military leaders have an essential role to play in speaking clearly about the security risks caused by inaction, and pushing for the enormous investment and cooperation we’ll need to take on this challenge—both with partner countries and within our own nations.

In the U.S., for example, our own Secretary of Defense Austin speaks often about the severity of the security threat posed by climate change and the need for urgent action—reminding us that “no nation can find lasting security without addressing the climate crisis.” His and other defense leaders’ advocacy has been essential in persuading the public to take the threat seriously, and helped lay the groundwork for the Biden Administration last year to pass the United States’ largest ever piece of climate legislation, a $369 billion investment in building a clean energy economy.


Throughout history, there have been military leaders who have understood their remit to be simply running armies. And in understanding their role so narrowly, some have even undermined their nation’s own stability and security, allowing their militaries to be used to subvert the will of the people.

But our greatest defense leaders have understood that they are their people’s most powerful stewards of security—and advocated for all of the investments we need, well beyond investments in weapons’ systems, to keep us safe.

In fact, it was the great World War II Generals my father-in-law served under, Marshall and Eisenhower, who were some of the earliest and strongest U.S. advocates for international development. In the wake of the Second World War, they pushed not only to maintain a strong defense, but also to invest in rebuilding in the wake of the war: supporting economic growth, food security, health, and education—the things that would lead to what General Marshall called a “dependable, long-enduring peace.”

It was this foresight, from leaders both in the United States and around the world, that helped reverse the cycle of devastation we saw in the World Wars—and begin an era that lifted hundreds of millions from extreme poverty, added decades to human life expectancy, and created the single largest expansion of peace and freedom in human history.

It is essential that we work together urgently – bringing diplomacy, defense, and development to bear – to build on that vital legacy.

Thank you so much.

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