The Landon Lecture: Thomas Donilon

| April 15, 2014

Thomas Donilon, former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, presented a Landon Lecture at 11:15 a.m. Tuesday, April 15, at Kansas State University's McCain Auditorium.

Below is a full transcript of the lecture. You may also find the video of the event from Kansas State University here.





Thank you, President Schulz, for that kind introduction, and thanks to all the students and faculty at Kansas State for having me here today. I especially want to acknowledge Dr. Jackie Hartman for all she does to oversee this distinguished series. Thank you Jackie.

I am honored and humbled to speak here from the same podium as many of our nation's most notable public servants, including presidents, military leaders, and members of Congress. The Landon Lecture Series--now in its 49th year--is a wonderful tradition that provides an opportunity for leaders to take some time to reflect on their experiences and the nation's challenges and possibilities.

My first trip to Manhattan was under different circumstances. I came here just about 30 years ago to be in the wedding of my dear friends Dan Bolen and Ellen Stolzer. This was back when Jackie's father was making Kansas State basketball history. It was a great occasion, where I also met Edward Seaton -- the publisher of the Manhattan Mercury. It was early in my career, Edward, but I had already learned the value of spending time with the local media moguls.

And it is fitting that we’re gathered to honor the legacy of Governor Alf Landon, who embodied the best traditions of public service here in Kansas and across the nation. He once humbly described himself as “an oilman who never made a million, a lawyer who never had a case, and a politician who carried only Maine and Vermont.” Of course, the rest of us remember him for his leadership and advocacy of American engagement in the world. His daughter, Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker, and the rest of the Landon family continue that legacy of service today.

It’s a special privilege to have the chance to speak with a talented group of young men and women, eager to find your own places in the world.

Young people today are used to hearing a pessimistic story about our country’s future. And you are well aware of the real challenges we face. The worst of an economic crisis is behind us, but too many of our fellow citizens are still struggling to find work. We face long-term deficits. Our elementary and high schools have slipped down in the international rankings. Our infrastructure needs rebuilding and there are real concerns about whether our increasingly technologically advanced and globalized economy can produce good jobs for every American.

There’s also a broader pessimism we hear about America’s place in the world. As National Security Advisor to President Obama, I spent the vast majority of my time in government coordinating the U.S. response to foreign policy crises and challenges – from winding down the war in Iraq to the uprisings in the Arab World, from North Korea’s provocations to our constant efforts to protect the nation and defeat al Qaeda. Sometimes it seemed like putting out fires was all we had time for. And during those challenging moments, we would often hear that American influence isn’t what it used to be, that our days as the leading superpower are numbered, that the United States is no longer capable or willing to take on the global challenges of the day.

I reject that view. And today I would like to discuss with you why, in my judgment, America is not in decline but will continue to be the world’s leading and most powerful nation for a long time to come.

I arrive at this assessment fully aware of the threats our nation faces - I have spent much of the last several years in some very dark places battling those who would do us harm. And I am fully aware of the strengths of our international competitors, embodied in the extraordinary rise of the rest – one of the most consequential trends in world economic history.

But I remain unflinchingly optimistic about America’s position. No nation can match our comprehensive, multidimensional set of enduring strengths: bountiful resources—both human and material, our global network of alliances, our unmatched military strength, our entrepreneurship and innovation, our liberal political and economic traditions, and our remarkable capacity for self-assessment and rejuvenation. Frankly, I am more confident today about America’s prospects than I was as a 22 year old walking into the White House almost 37 years ago to start my first job in government.

I. Declinism and History

I recently came across the following assessment: “The United States cannot afford another decline like that which has characterized the past decade and a half … Only self-delusion can keep us from admitting our decline to ourselves.”

That is a familiar line of argumentation in today’s opinion pages. But in fact, those words were written over 50 years ago, in 1961, by a young Harvard professor named Henry Kissinger.

This story shows that for all our optimism, Americans have always worried about our place in the world. It’s in our DNA, and it helps drive our renewal. To borrow from the great political scientist Samuel Huntington, “The United States is unlikely to decline so long as its public is periodically convinced that it is about to decline. The declinists play an indispensable role in preventing what they are predicting.”

Now, Dr. Kissinger had valid concerns. At the time he wrote those words, the U.S. economy was struggling to grow its way out of a recession. The Soviet Union had launched the world’s first artificial satellite, known as Sputnik, into orbit. The nation went into a panic, thinking we had fallen behind in technological innovation and would soon be outspent and outmatched by Moscow.

And yet the decade and a half that was the subject of Dr. Kissinger’s fears – the period from the end of World War II until the Kennedy Administration – is now seen by most historians as an era of unparalleled American economic growth and power. The decade that followed was even more prosperous, ending with the United States, not the Soviet Union, making the first lunar landing. And mere thirty years after Dr. Kissinger wrote those words, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist entirely.

None of this is new. Just in my lifetime, every ten years or so, a new bout of profound pessimism has swept the nation. In his fine new book The Myth of America’s Decline, the German journalist and author Josef Joffe documents the roughly 5 waves of declinism from the time Sputnik went into orbit to today’s gloom and doom.

Declinists in the late 60s asserted that the cost of Vietnam and social and racial tensions would bring about what one prominent historian called “the unraveling of America.”

In the 70s, declinists signaled the end by pointing to inflation, oil shocks and unemployment. An ally fell in Iran and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.

In the 1980s, we feared Japan’s growing economic strength and historians said we would soon become one of history’s forgotten empires.

But in each instance, the sky didn’t fall, the United States didn’t sink into the ocean, and we’re still here – the most preeminent nation on earth.

I think this shows not only that there is a tendency to underestimate America’s staying power, but also that we need to be humble about our ability to predict the future with certainty.

II. U.S. Enduring Strengths and Strategic Assets

Today, the declinists are back, arguing that China will soon overtake us or that our gridlocked politics, long-term deficits, and decaying infrastructure will prevent us from playing the same global role that we have since World War II.

I take these concerns seriously, and we should not assume that America will retain its primacy simply because declinists in the past have turned out to be wrong. Leadership is not something the United States has by happenstance – it is something we have had to earn, over and over again.

So how do we actually quantify power? A predecessor of mine as national security advisor and one of the country’s finest minds on foreign policy, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his latest book, Strategic Vision, assigned the United States a strategic balance sheet of assets and liabilities, like you would with any business. I think Zbig’s framework sets up a useful way of analyzing where we stand today.

We certainly have strategic liabilities that we cannot ignore. But what is sometimes lost in the periodic wringing of hands is just how extraordinary America’s assets are – first and foremost our ability to deal with whatever challenges may come our way.

Measuring power in today’s globalized world is a complex task. A country’s strength and influence goes beyond the old, one-dimensional quantifiers that we used to use, like steel outputs and troop numbers. While our military might is tremendous and essential, power today is more often exercised through economic vitality, the capacity for innovation, a vibrant and stable political system, and a resilient society.

It is not measuring strength in one or two dimensions that captures a country’s position but rather the accumulation and the interaction between these assets. And so today, I’d like to examine five of the unique strengths that are the enduring foundation of American leadership

in the world: our economy, our military might, our geography, our people, and our leadership.


More than anything else, the American economy is the wellspring of our global leadership.

There are not a lot of iron laws of history, but one of them is that a nation’s power is directly related to its economic strength. As President Obama has said, “Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power.”

The 2008 financial crisis tested our resilience, and dealt a real blow to our national prestige and authority. And long-term challenges remain. But the fact is that no country comes close to matching our fundamental economic strength. The U.S. economy is built on a sound structural foundation, combining an entrepreneurial orientation, deep and efficient capital markets, highly experienced managers, and strong technological leadership.

By every measure, the United States has the largest national economy in the world today, generating nearly 17 trillion dollars in GDP. Our economy is nearly double the size of the second largest, China’s. Our stock market capitalization is five times bigger than China’s. We lead the world in attracting foreign direct investment and are also the world’s largest single investing economy.

An economy’s most important asset, however, is not its sheer size. Indeed, China’s enormous population base will put it on a path to become the largest economy in the world at some point in the future.

But history shows that size alone has not been the most important factor in determining the most powerful nation. At the peak of Great Britain’s global power, it was China that had the world’s largest economy, even though the country was then a middling power in the throes of what the Chinese refer to as their “century of humiliation.”

As opposed to size, I’d argue that a far better measure of an economy’s health is its quality and sustainability. We have the wealthiest large economy in the world, as well one of the most diversified and technologically advanced. By way of comparison, China has a very large economy but it’s still a poor country. The United States’ income per person is more than 50 thousand dollars, whereas China’s stands at about 6 thousand dollars. That provides an important perspective.

And when we look to our prospects for the future, it’s clear that the United States is in a strong position to maintain our leading position. Think about three aspects of our economy: innovation, energy, and higher education.

First, the United States has an innovation edge over the rest of the world. Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter -- all are synonymous with American economic vitality, but only one existed 15 years ago. The largest 8 technology companies in the world by market capitalization are based in the United States. And when it comes to the next frontiers in extraordinary breakout technology, like 3-D manufacturing, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, cloud computing, robotics, big data, and advanced material science, American entrepreneurs and companies are leading the way.

We also lead the world in research and development, with a projected $465 billion in spending this year – that’s over 30 percent of all global R&D.

Like so many of our strengths, our innovation advantage didn’t happen by accident. It stems from the combination of a risk taking culture, significant investment by the American government in research, the best universities in the world churning out good ideas, and the kind of regulations and easy access to capital that make it possible to turn those ideas into businesses. And all these strengths come together in Silicon Valley, which represents to the world our spirit of creativity.

A second and frankly unexpected U.S. economic asset is our national energy outlook.

For most of the past 40 years, the United States had thought of itself as a nation dependent on oil and energy-related events beyond our shores. Now, as U.S. innovation and technology allow us to tap unconventional resources, nearly every prediction about our energy future has been turned on its back.

Today, the United States is the number one producer of natural gas in the world, and the price of natural gas here is a fraction of what it is elsewhere. The International Energy Agency projects that we will be the world’s largest producer of oil by the end of the decade. Unconventional energy will propel our economy and support American jobs – nearly 900,000 by next year will come just from shale gas.

Meanwhile, our new energy security is allowing us to engage the world from a position of strength. It gives us the latitude to support allies and, if need be, punish adversaries. The success of our Iran sanctions, for example, was made possible only because we were confident that increased American supply enabled us to afford removing a million barrels of Iranian oil off the market each day without dramatic increases in gasoline costs to U.S. consumers. And it was the bite of those sanctions that ultimately brought the Iranians to the negotiating table last year.

Like our success in innovation, this energy renaissance did not happen by accident or because of luck -- it is truly an only-in-the-U.S. story. Many other countries have promising shale deposits. The reason that the United States has seen such dramatic and fast-paced energy changes is because decades ago, we made wise, significant investments in key technologies, and we have the right balance of an open investment climate, an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit, environmental safeguards, infrastructure, and property ownership rights.

Today, the wide availability of cheap natural gas in the United States has become a major competitive advantage for our energy intensive manufacturers, particularly compared to Europe and China.

Meanwhile, our reduction of energy imports has brought our trade deficit to a four-year low and allows a greater share of the money Americans spend on energy to remain within America. We also now have the opportunity for the export of both natural gas and crude oil to the world, which will support our allies, stabilize the world’s energy supply, and expand our own prosperity.

Next, our higher education system. Our universities are the envy of the world. We are home to 17 of the top 20 research universities. Our scientists publish far more papers in prominent journals than any other country. Despite what you hear, we graduate more engineers per capita than either China or India. Foreign students compete to study at universities like this one, and last year, we enrolled a record 820,000 foreign students at U.S. universities.

But don’t take my word for it. There’s an Omaha-based investor by the name of Warren Buffett who had the following to say in his latest letter to his shareholders: “I have always considered a bet on ever-rising U.S. prosperity to be very close to a sure thing. Indeed, who has ever benefited during the past 237 years by betting against America? If you compare our country’s present condition to that existing in 1776, you have to rub your eyes in wonder. And the dynamism embedded in our market economy will continue to work its magic. America’s best days lie ahead.”

Military might and alliances

Next, our military. By any measure, our military power is unmatched, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. In terms of sheer size, the U.S. spends more each year on defense than the next 10 nations put together. Our defense budget is more than five times bigger than that of our nearest competitor, China, despite that country’s rapid military buildup. Even after 13 years of war – the longest period of continuous conflict our armed forces have ever seen – we remain capable of defeating any adversary.

But even these measurements underestimate our military’s true advantages.

Our navy owns 11 of the world’s 20 aircraft carriers, making us the only country on earth with a truly global power projection.

With more than a decade of experience fighting terror, our special operations forces have become a unique American asset. The May 2011 raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abottabad, Pakistan – over 7,000 miles away from the United States – was only the most visible example of how our battle-tested special operators successfully execute complex missions in dangerous places across the globe.

And by historical measures, the current U.S. defense burden is not excessive as a share of GDP. With the Iraq war over and the war in Afghanistan winding down, our military now stands on a more sustainable footing, with no signs of the kind of overstretch that some have worried about.

We also possess a network of formal alliances with over fifty nations—the largest in history. For over half a century, on a bipartisan basis, the United States has built a global network of alliances around the world, in Asia and in Europe. No other country can look to anything like this. These enduring partnerships are a unique American strength and we continue to deepen them across the globe today.


Next, our geography and resources are our most natural advantage. These enduring strengths are rarely discussed, but they have provided for the safety and prosperity of the American people from the days since the first settlers arrived.

We are an Atlantic and a Pacific power, an American and an Arctic nation. We are protected by oceans and peaceful borders. We live in a hemisphere of mostly stable democracies, and we enjoy friendly, productive relations with our fellow American states. The bottom-line strategic point is that the United States does not face any real threats in our own hemisphere.

And almost uniquely, the United States is not a dependent power. In addition to our energy resources, we have other diverse and valuable sets of natural resources. The United States has the largest deposits of rare earth minerals at a time when competition for those resources is on the rise, and we are the world’s largest food exporter.

Demography and immigration

That brings me to a fourth enduring American strength and one that puts us in a position to lead throughout the 21st century: our people.

And we are blessed to have a bright demographic future. Our workforce is relatively young and still growing. Between now and 2050, the U.S. population is expected to grow by more than 100 million people, expanding our work force by 40 percent. This is not the case elsewhere in the world. The populations of other developed nations in Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea are aging and shrinking. By 2050, the median age in China will be nearly 50; in the United States it will be 40.

A big part of the reason our demographic profile looks better than the rest of the world is that we are a nation of immigrants. Immigrants are both younger than the population at large and participate in the workforce in larger numbers. They are also a tremendous source of creativity, and the United States has a distinct advantage over other developed nations when it comes to attracting highly skilled immigrants. Foreign entrepreneurs and scientists choose to make the U.S. their home because it is easier to enter our labor markets and move within them than in any other developed country. Our open society allows for more seamless integration than anywhere else.

That’s why I think it’s so important for Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Reform is not just a domestic issue – it’s a strategic issue – and it’s crucial to locking in our global advantage in human capital.


The final asset I’d like to discuss is America’s unique global leadership role. For generations, Americans have taken up the mantle of leadership in a world torn by war and scarred by oppression. We have repeatedly put American blood and treasure on the line to defend our values and advance universal rights. And the world still expects us to lead today. People everywhere look to America to protect global commerce, ensure the free flow of energy, and control the spread of dangerous weapons.

Plenty of countries have leverage. But there is a very big difference between leverage and leadership. We bring to bear more than just resources. We have an unmatched ability to convene countries and coordinate international efforts. That’s because of the attractiveness of our ideas, our style of leadership, and the fact that we’ve nurtured such a successful international system.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright calls America the “indispensible nation”; that’s because few global problems could be solved without American involvement. Our allies in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia clamor for active U.S. engagement in their regions. Although American power is occasionally resented, there is everywhere a strong attraction to our values of democracy, free markets, and respect for human rights. It is impossible to imagine any other country assuming the global leadership role we currently play.

III. Challenges

Now, I told you I was going to give an optimistic speech. But we must also be clear-eyed about the liabilities side of our strategic balance sheet. I see five policy challenges that we must address in the coming decade.

Getting control of our long-term budget deficit is one of the first orders of business. Our fiscal position risks undermining our overall economic foundation. Now despite the general impression out there, the fact is that in the last several years our deficit has dropped precipitously – in fact, faster than in any period since the demobilization after World War II. But in just two years, deficits will begin rising again, driven mainly by mandatory entitlement spending. As a result, will have less flexibility to make useful investments in the future of our country, from science and technology to the national defense.

In taking on our deficits, economic growth should continue to be our priority in both the short and long term. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has estimated that an increase of just one fifth of one percent in annual economic growth would address the projected long-term budget gap.

Second, our infrastructure is falling into disrepair. Just five years ago, the World Economic Forum ranked our infrastructure 7th best in the world – today it’s 15th, and U.S. public construction spending as a percentage of GDP has plummeted to its lowest point in 20 years. Our overburdened roads and bridges create a situation that is environmentally, politically, and economically unsustainable.

Third, we can no longer take our advantages in innovation for granted. China and Japan have already surpassed us in the number of patents filed each year, and China is quickly catching up in terms of R&D spending. That’s why it’s such an important national priority that our government continue to invest in advancing scientific knowledge.

At the same time, our failure to overhaul our immigration system is blunting our natural edge in the global competition for talent. Forty percent of the people receiving advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at American universities are foreign nationals with no legal way to stay here, even if they would choose to do so. American business leaders regularly express frustration that our current immigration laws make it hard for them to hire talented individuals from abroad, limiting their ability to grow their companies. And our competitors are already changing their policies in order to attract the best and the brightest from around the world. That is a cause for national concern. Passing commonsense reform would allow us to meet the needs of the 21st century American economy.

Similarly, we need a wake-up call when it comes to primary and secondary education. Our universities are the best in the world, but we rank 17th on Peterson’s well-regarded education index for grade school. This is simply unacceptable. If we are going to prepare Americans for the jobs of the future and restore middle-class security, we have to out-educate the world. That starts with a strong school system that stretches from pre-K through college.

Overcoming these liabilities will take time and difficult choices. But here’s the key point: none of these challenges is insurmountable. Every one of them has a policy solution in sight that is feasible and affordable for our nation. Addressing them in each case is a matter of mustering the political will, as we’ve done for the last 200 years.

IV. Conclusion

With the worst of the economic crisis behind us, the war in Iraq over and the war in Afghanistan winding down, now is the time for smart choices and wise investments that will sustain American power and leadership for generations to come. We must continue to build on our assets and squarely take on our liabilities. That means taking all the necessary steps to enhance economic growth, including passing comprehensive immigration reform, ramping up our investment in science and technology, repairing our infrastructure, and undertaking more thoroughgoing political reforms to restore the health of our democracy.

As we continue to renew our nation, our fundamental strengths will propel us forward. Our open society and democratic institutions set us apart. Our military remains the strongest in the world, and we will continue to lead on the international stage. Our institutions will allow us to pursue the kind of just and sustainable growth that our changing society needs. We are younger than our competitors, and our economy will continue to be more vibrant.

I was recently reminded of a conversation I had with Henry Kissinger during my time in the White House. I asked him what he made of all this renewed talk of American decline. And I’ll never forget his reply. He said “Well, Tom, would you rather be national security advisor for any other country?” The answer was self-evident – of course not.Our power goes beyond a snapshot of individual metrics. Above all, it lies in the ability of our society, time and again, to meet problems head on. The next century of American power is within our reach if we challenge ourselves – especially all our young people – to meet it.

Thank you.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:The Landon Lecture: Thomas Donilon.” Video, April 15, 2014.

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