About the Event

From June of 2019 until his firing by President Donald Trump after the November 2020 election, Secretary Mark T. Esper led the Department of Defense through an unprecedented time in history—a period marked by growing threats and conflict abroad, a global pandemic unseen in a century, the greatest domestic unrest in two generations, and a White House seemingly bent on breaking accepted norms and conventions for political advantage. A Sacred Oath is Secretary Esper’s unvarnished and candid memoir of those extraordinary and dangerous times, and includes events and moments never before told.

The World Affairs Council of Philadelphia joined Secretary Mark Esper for a conversation about his book A Sacred Oath, a memoir detailing the all-consuming task of managing America’s largest and most vital cabinet department” and “showing how presidential inattention, ignorance, incuriosity, duplicity, and unwillingness to take responsibility for hard decisions all put the United States at risk” (Wall Street Journal). The event included a keynote address by Secretary Esper and time for Q&A provided the audience with the chance to dive deeper into the topics of their choosing.

The discussion began with Secretary Esper’s reflection on the effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He surmised that the invasion pushed Ukraine close to NATO and strengthened the Europe’s conviction to resist Russian aggression. Esper also predicted that the Ukrainian army has a chance to push Russia out of its entire territory, although retaking Crimea would be especially difficult. Furthermore, he stated that NATO’s supplying of weapons and ammo to Ukraine is draining its own reserves. Hence, to ensure that the U.S. has the stockpiles it needs for itself for potential conflicts, the Defense Department needs to move contracts and build up the manufacturing capacity to meet demands.

The next topic was the relationship between China and America. Secretary Esper stated his belief that the People’s Republic of China consistently abuses the international system for its own gain and that the Chinese Communist Party’s aim is to dominate the Pacific by 2049. When asked about concerns with the security of the app TikTok, he agreed with the FBI’s conclusion that it poses a threat. He added that the presence of Chinese companies in American ports is a lesser known surveillance threat, since the military moves its forces through ports and other parts of the trade infrastructure. The discussion then moved on to the other threats that emerged during Secretary Esper’s tenure. He noted tensions arose with North Korea after their missile tests, but after a change in rhetoric, things calmed down. Likewise, relations with Iran and Venezuela deteriorated under the Trump administration and Secretary Esper advised caution against military escalation in both instances. He elaborated his opinion that American foreign policy is too militarized and that soft power should be the first tool considered before military force.

Before moving on to audience questions, the final topics were the military’s recruiting strategy and Secretary Esper’s view on upcoming elections. Regarding the former, he explained that social media advertising has become a key tool in the Department of Defense’s recruiting efforts, despite his personal distaste for social media’s effects on society. To maintain the current size of the Department of Defense’s personnel, he advocated for a national effort to change public opinion on military service. Secretary Esper argued the only alternatives are instituting a draft or lowering the standards for enlistment. On the topic of elections, Secretary Esper described himself as a “Reagan Republican” and expressed his hope for younger candidates that can expand the Republican Party’s base and win elections.

The audience Q&A began with a question on the role of information control in Russia and China. Secretary Esper remarked that the free exchange of ideas is critical to American society and that control of the narrative has distorted the Russian populace’s understanding of the war in Ukraine. As an example of information’s importance, he argued that the use of radios won the Cold War. The next question was on whether the U.S. should provide jets to Ukraine. Secretary Esper expressed his frustration at the Biden administration’s slow shift from refusal-to-approval with each new weapon system requested by Ukraine. He claimed that the delay has drawn out the war and hindered Ukraine from winning a decisive victory. Speaking about the path to reengagement with Russia after the end of the current conflict, Secretary Esper asserted that Putin’s continued rule is an obstacle. He furthermore expressed his hope that Congressional Republicans and voters will continue to provide support to Ukraine, albeit with the thoughtful consideration standard for any expenditure. He also stated that the Biden administration needs to provide a convincing argument to the American people that continued support is in the best interest of taxpayers.

Further audience questions inquired about whether the U.S. ought to have a continued role in Afghanistan. Secretary Esper replied yes, but asserted that the Taliban regime cannot be trusted to let humanitarian aid reach its intended beneficiaries. One audience member asked about what America can do to deter China from invading Taiwan. Reflecting on the differences in geography between Ukraine and Taiwan, primarily that the latter is an island and not so easily resupplied by neighbors, Esper advocated insuring Taiwan has sufficiently stockpiles to resist an invasion. He argued that a well-armed Taiwan and the threat of sanctions are the best deterrent. As for lessons that China may have learned from the war in Ukraine, Secretary Esper highlighted the major economic fallout from sanctions. He also noted that the People’s Liberation Army has no recent combat experience, meaning that it might fare even worse than Russian forces in the event of a war. The last question was on areas of improvement for the Department of Defense. Secretary Esper noted that during his tenure he had worked to rebalance the composition of the U.S. Navy to be better prepared for a conflict with China, but work still needs to be done to increase the number of vessels.

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