Interventions at the North American Defense Ministerial Plenary Session

By:  Charles Hagel
Date: April 24, 2014
Location: Mexico City, Mexico

Good morning.

I would like to thank Secretary Cienfuegos for your support and for hosting this meeting. I would also like to thank Secretary Soberón and Minister Nicholson, for your participation in this important forum.

Our respective bilateral defense relationships have grown, particularly in the last several years since the last ministerial in 2012. A dynamic trilateral defense partnership that builds on our successes and shared interests, and is respectful of sovereignty concerns, will further strengthen and build a more resilient North America. In this, we are following the leads of our Heads of State who met at the North American Leaders Summit in Toluca last February. As President Obama noted in that meeting, we are opening up a "new chapter in our partnership."

I look forward to having an open conversation on how we can advance this trilateral strategic dialogue.

Our presence here today, and our commitment to advancing our defense partnership, is a recognition that together we can more effectively address the complex security threats facing our countries. To build an effective North American defense relationship, we must work together to address mutually identified threats, while respecting the individual sovereignty, foreign policy, and constitutional frameworks of each member.

As Minister Nicholson stated, many of the threats we face are complex and transcend our borders. To effectively address these shared challenges we should coordinate our efforts and resources, and deepen our cooperation.

We should support the Canadian proposal to produce a digest of our collective defense activities and policies. Similar to our effort to develop an updated continental threat assessment, this digest could provide a starting point to coordinate efforts to avoid duplication and maximize scarce resources.

Our earlier effort to develop a continental threat assessment was a good start to identifying common threats and interests. There is merit to updating that assessment to reflect current and future threats and deepen our understanding of our security challenges. I propose that we establish a working group to provide principals an updated, non-binding, continental threat assessment within a year after this ministerial. It is something we can assess when we next meet at the ministerial level.

Cyber security is another threat, like transnational crime, that knows no borders. Each of our defense institutions is working individually to address potential cyber threats. At the Department of Defense, we have worked to elevate the importance of cyber security in our National Security Strategy. In our recently released Quadrennial Defense Review we said we would dedicate more resources to cyber.

While our defense institutions do not have the lead in our respective countries for cyber security, we all share a common interest in the protection of military communications. I propose that we establish a cyber-working group to identify potential opportunities to work together to share best practices and lessons learned.

Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief

Like transnational crime and cyber security, natural disasters do not recognize national borders and can impact all of us. Our defense institutions provide critical support to our respective lead civilian agencies for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief when unique military capabilities are needed. While each of our nations face constrained defense budgets, the demand for military support to civilian agencies continues to increase as we experience more frequent and larger-scale natural disasters.

This was a key theme and subject of discussion at the ASEAN Defense Ministers meeting I attended earlier this month in Hawaii. We are making important progress with our Southeast Asian partners in coordinating military responses to disasters and I am pleased that we are beginning to do the same in our hemisphere.

Relief efforts after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, and the tsunami that hit Indonesia in 2014 demonstrated the many challenges any one country faces trying to meet all the enormous demands for humanitarian assistance in the wake of natural disasters. Coordinated response efforts, as we saw in Haiti in 2010, ensure more effective and timely delivery of life-saving assistance.

The capabilities and experience our militaries can collectively bring in response to natural disasters cannot be overstated. Coordinating humanitarian and disaster relief operations is in the best interests of our respective defense institutions, our countries, the North American region, and our hemisphere as a whole.

I would like to see our three countries work more closely together in the area of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. We should commit to focus attention on developing our capacity to coordinate with a goal of maximizing our resources. This is an area that would benefit from establishment of a permanent working group tasked with identifying areas of cooperation and implementing coordination protocols as we move forward.

Trilateral Cooperation

While we agree with the working group's determination that combatting transnational crime at the strategic level is best addressed by the security group under the North American Leaders Summit (NALS) process, we need to ensure that coordination at the tactical and operational level continues.

The Canadian proposal to establish and serve as the initial chair of a permanent secretariat is an important step to institutionalizing the North American Defense Ministerial. To increase the effectiveness of the Secretariat, we support the identification of a common mode of communications to facilitate regular and direct communication between our senior staffs.

As members of a regional organization, we should work individually to strengthen hemispheric forums such as the Inter-American Defense Board and the Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas. The upcoming October conference of Defense Ministers in Peru will address hemispheric defense cooperation in key areas such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, search and rescue, and military health.
Once again, I want to extend my sincere thanks to you Secretary Cienfuegos, and all of the Secretariat of National Defense personnel for their generous hospitality. I would note that Canada, and now Mexico have graciously hosted the first two North American Defense Ministerials. I would like to offer to host the next Ministerial in 2016 to continue this important dialogue.

This forum is moving beyond the concept stage and is becoming a venue to develop new opportunities for deeper collaboration and new approaches to more effectively address shared threats and challenges. We have identified important areas where we can work together as equal partners. As we move forward, the discussions today will further strengthen the foundation for continued cooperation in meeting defense and security requirements for our three nations.
Thank you.

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