Remarks by President Biden in Meeting with Department of Defense Leaders
South Court Auditorium
Eisenhower Executive Office Building
3:17 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Secretary Austin, Secretary Hicks, General Milley, all the other selfless military leaders, welcome back to the White House.
And with all the challenges we’re facing around the world, I want to thank you all for your — and I mean this sincerely — for your steady leadership and — and your commitment to keeping our nation strong and the American people safe. That’s exactly what you have been doing.
I also want to take a moment to honor the memory of our 25th Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, who suddenly passed away on Monday night. I got a chance to speak to his wife, and it — it was very sudden and shocking.
And I know many of you around this table had the privilege of working with him throughout his decades of service to the United States. He was a leader of enormous integrity. When I think of him, that’s the first word that comes to mind is his integrity, in my dealing with him.
He always put the women and men of the force first. And he drove innovation to sharpen the military edge and to protect our warfighters.
And I’ll never forget working with him to make sure that our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan — and you’ll remember this — in Iraq had those lifesaving, limb-saving MRAPs they needed. Because that wasn’t initially what we were going to do; they were going to postpone that. But I tell you what: It saved a hell of a lot of lives. And I deeply valued Ash’s courage and counsel during that point.
And he dedicated his life to public purpose, and he will be greatly missed, for real.
And in April, we recognized the historic number of highly qualified women serving in senior leadership at the Department of Defense. And since then, we’ve added Admiral Linda Fagan — a Coastie. There she is. Good to see you, Admiral. And the first woman to head the Armed Services and to serve as a four-star in the Coast Guard.
I keep telling everybody — and she’s heard me say this — most people don’t know they’re deployed around the world as much or more than anybody in a single branch. And I thank you for your service. I really do.
I also welcome General Langley, Commander of U.S. AFRICOM — Africa Command — who is now the first Black four-star in the 246-year history of the Marine Corps.
And we have a long way to go, but it’s important to continue highlighting the growing diversity among our leaders.
I — I indicated when I got elected President that my administration and the military is going to look like America. And I meant that sincerely, because I think that is part of the strength of America, that everyone knows that everything is possible.
And that’s exactly what we’re doing. As a matter of fact, it’s the same way not just in the uniformed military but throughout the high commands of — of my office, from the Cabinet to major leaders in — within the White House.
But we have a long way to go. It’s important to continue to highlight the growing diversity among our defense leaders.
We’re approaching the 50th anniversary of the all-volunteer force. And this is a group — this group is an inspiration to new generations that show every person within — with the heart to serve and the talents, the contributions that will be very much valued. And we’re working on that hard.
I look forward to hearing your perspective where we’re all — where we’re doing well and where we can do better as we navigate a strategic environment marked by an increasingly complicated world. I think we all agree with that.
And as we made clear in the National Security Strategy, this is a decisive decade, not because of any one of us — because the world is changing.
There’s that famous Irish poet who said, “All has changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born.” The world is changing, and it’s changing rapidly. And we have to gain control of our own destiny within that change.
We’ve made clear that, this decade, we’re going to be engaged. We have to both address the growing competition between major powers while simultaneously taking on the — the shared challenges that impact the lives of billions of people around the world, like tackling climate change and strengthening health security.
There are no walls high enough to keep out a pandemic. It’s — and it’s had impacts all around the world.
And there are no easy solutions, but I know you and your teams are up to the task. We made clear in the National Security Strategy that modernizing and strengthening our military is a core source of our national strength and is a priority for me and my administration.
We’re going to continue to lead with our diplomacy and build coalitions and — to tackle global challenges backed by the unquestionable strength of — and this is not hyperbole — the finest fighting force in the history of the world. You represent the finest fighting force in the history of the world. That’s not hyperbole; it’s an actual fact.
And we’re going to continue to support Ukraine, together with our Allies and partners around the world, as it defends itself against Russia’s brutal aggression.
We have to keep NATO strong and united as we meet the threats of today and the threats of tomorrow.
We’re going to continue to deepen our core alliances in the Indo-Pacific and build new coalitions committed to a world that is free, open, prosperous, and secure. We’re having some diplomatic success on that and welcoming the presence of all of you in that part of the world.
And we can — we also have to be — to responsibly manage the increasingly intense competition with China.
You know, we have to maintain our military advantage by making clear that — that we do not seek conflict. In my many conversations — and I’m told I’ve spent more time with Xi Jinping than other world leader has — 78 hours’ worth, just he and I. Eight of them — ten of those on the telephone, but the rest in person over the last — since I was Vice President. And he is — he knows what he’s about. And, you know, I — we have a responsibility to — to manage increasingly intense competition with China.
And we must maintain, as I said, our military advantage, but we’re making it clear that we don’t seek conflict. I told him that we’re looking for competition. There’ll be stiff — stiff competition, but not — there doesn’t need to be conflict. But we are going to compete.
And as we navigate each of these situations and more, I’m going to continue to rely on you to be professional and candid with me in your advice. And you’ve all, that I’ve dealt with, have been that, given me candid and honest advice.
Being your Commander-in-Chief is truly the greatest honor in my life. It’s an incredible thing that I never thought would happen. But I — I — it even impressed my son Beau Biden — Major Biden. He — he’s passed, but it impressed him. He used to kid me about it. He’d come home and pretend to salute me.
But at any rate, I — all kidding aside, as we meet the thousands of patriotic troops that are serving around in harm’s way, with families that are anxious about their safety and anxious about their security and anxious about their — their circumstances.
These troops and their families are the backbone of our national security, as you know better than I, and caring for their needs for all those who serve is critical to maintaining the force we need to protect us now but also our future.
I know each of you continue to prioritize our people and their families as we meet the challenges ahead. We have a lot to talk about today, and I look forward to our conversations.
And with that, I say to the press, thank you for being here and goodbye.
3:25 P.M. EDT