Last week, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates delivered an impressive speech on export control reform before a gathering of the Business Executives for National Security. My colleague Neena Shenai provided a helpful overview of Gates’ proposed reform plan—which involves a transition to a single control list and licensing agency, followed by transition to a single IT structure, followed eventually by the creation of a new licensing and enforcement agency—as well as an assessment of the likely challenges to implementing it. Recently I had a chance to read the speech in full.
One of the most compelling elements of the secretary’s remarks was his strategic rationale for the reforms, which hinged on the importance of building partner capacity (BPC)—one of the consistent priorities, and perhaps the most strategically sound, of the Gates Pentagon. In a recent Foreign Affairs essay on the topic, Secretary Gates made clear that “helping other countries better provide for their own security will be a key and enduring test of U.S. global leadership and a critical part of protecting U.S. security, as well.”
Rarely, however, is the concept of BPC invoked among scholars and analysts in the context of high-end defense capabilities, but rather—as one might expect, given the nature of our current wars—with regard to building a partner nation’s army or police forces. In his speech, Gates explained why it’s a mistake to look at BPC solely through the lens of counterinsurgency:
The current export-control regime impedes the effectiveness of our closest military allies, tests their patience and goodwill, and hinders their ability to cooperate with U.S. forces—this at a time when we count on allies and partners to fight with us in places like Afghanistan and potentially elsewhere. Not too long ago, a British C-17 spent hours disabled on the ground in Australia—not because the needed part wasn’t available, but because U.S. law required the Australians to seek U.S. permission before doing the repair. These are two of our very strongest allies for God’s sake! Similarly, close, long-standing allies and partners like South Korea have bought U.S. aircraft only to encounter difficulties and delays in getting spare parts—something that weakens our bilateral relationships, our credibility, and ultimately American security.
But wait—there’s more. Gates went on to note how export control reform stands to promote partnership beyond the battlefield, reinforcing alliances and enabling multilateral regimes:
The prospect of more defense trade with the U.S. will incentivize other nations to strengthen their own export regimes. Given how quickly and how easily goods and information now can flow around the world, export controls are far more effective when they involve multiple partners with shared interests and values.
If there were any remaining doubts about whether Gates is more than simply a secretary of war, concerned solely with bringing the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to a successful conclusion, this speech should fully dispel them. His proposed export control reforms represent a further expression of his ambition to thoroughly reshape the U.S. national security apparatus so as to better meet the challenges of the post-Cold War era. In this case, it’s an admirable effort.
Tim Sullivan is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Cross-posted from the CDS blog.