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TRANSCRIPT: Ambassador Kennedy’s speech to the International Seapower Symposium in Newport, Rhode Island
September 21, 2023

AMBASSADOR CAROLINE KENNEDY: Good morning, everyone. It’s an honor to be here with the finest sailors in the whole world. I want to thank especially Secretary Del Toro for his leadership and support. I saw firsthand that the U.S. Navy has no greater champion when he visited Australia for the commissioning of the USS Canberra. The day after the commissioning, I attended a ceremony where the crew of the USS Canberra was granted a freedom-of-entry ceremony into the city of Canberra. I think we need a freedom-of-entry ceremony for Secretary Del Toro to be allowed into Red Sox Nation. 

This is a real moment of opportunity for the global maritime community, and the United States is honored that Navy chiefs from so many nations have made the effort to be here. This conference is especially important for us as we prepare for a new CNO [Chief of Naval Operations]. I’m excited to work with Admiral Franchetti who spent her career learning and leading, commanding in the Atlantic and the Pacific, serving as VCNO [Vice Chief of Naval Operations] – she brings vital operational experience, knows how to drive reform and above all, is committed to the wellbeing and development of sailors and their families. I join all those who call on Senator Tuberville to stop putting our national security at risk and confirm her confirmation and hundreds of senior military leaders. 

I would also like to salute the Commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Fagan, and the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps General Smith, and recognize all your chiefs of Navy and your spouses. I know that public service is a family endeavor, and you would not be able to succeed without the support of your husbands and wives. And thank you also to the War College for welcoming us all. 

One of the reasons that I was so eager to come here is that I spent some of the happiest times of my life in Newport. And looking back, I realized how closely my memories are intertwined with that of the Navy. My grandparents’ house was near Fort Adams, and my grandmother always told us that if not for General Rochambeau landing in Newport to join the French fleet, the American colonies would not have won their independence. My father did PT boat training near here, and my mother used to go down to the rocks and check the submarine nets that were set across the harbor during World War Two. My parents were married at St Mary’s Church and Newport became the summer White House.  I remember eating breakfast with my father while we watched the destroyers and cruisers and cutters sailing past every morning. He loved watching the America’s Cup races. In fact, in 1962, when the United States was competing here against Australia – and this is for you, Admiral Hammond – my father called the Australians “the most extraordinary athletic group in the world today”, before toasting their courage and gallantry in war. From the 900 sporting events that I’ve been to in Australia since I became Ambassador, I can testify that you are still living up to this description.  

At that same celebration, my father said words that represent the special bond that brings us all here together: “I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it is because, in addition to the fact that the sea changes and the light changes and ships change, it’s because we all came from the sea. And it’s an interesting fact that all of us have in our veins the same percentage of salts that exists in the ocean, and therefore we have salt in our blood, in our sweat and in our tears.  We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it, we’re going back from whence we came.” 

Growing up, almost every day someone has come up to me and said President Kennedy changed my life.  He asked me to give back to this country that’s given us so much. It all began with a call to service in his inaugural address when he declared: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” I know that everyone here has answered that call and you have dedicated your lives to serving your countries. And in that same speech, he recommitted America to the revolutionary ideals on which our country was founded – freedom, equality and the rule of law. He set forth his belief in a democratic order and a set of rules that the United States helped to create and was willing to live by – rules that for the past 80 years have underpinned peace and stability. He advocated for diplomatic solutions and international institutions. He realized that America needed to reach people with the power of our ideals and our example, not just our economic and military might. As a descendant of immigrants, he understood that diversity is a source of strength, fought for civil rights at home, and supported the desire of people around the world seeking liberation from colonial powers. He announced the Moonshot and established the Peace Corps, inspiring people around the world to take on hard challenges and to help one another.   

And although the United States has made our share of mistakes, we’ve tried to stay true to those values, rules and institutions, and they are at the center of President Biden’s administration as well. President Biden has passed historic bipartisan legislation to address the existential challenge of our time, climate change. The United States is investing in critical infrastructure at home and around the world to mitigate its effects. America has prioritized global health and food security in the aftermath of COVID and Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. We have all learned that, more than ever before, we are in this together. No country can solve the transnational challenges of our time. And working together with friends, partners, allies and even competitors is the only chance we have to build a better world.  President Kennedy said: “Peace is a process, a way of solving problems. World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor. It requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement.” Those words ring just as true today.   

We recognize that the greatest strength of the United States is our people and our relationships.  President Biden is modernizing our alliances to preserve the stability of the global order, where countries respect each other’s right to self-determination. The United States has brought NATO and other allies together to support Ukrainians fighting to preserve their sovereignty, because an unprovoked invasion on any one country puts all countries at risk. In the economic arena, 14 countries are working through the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework to create a new economic architecture to increase fairness, protect the environment, [and] share information and supplies more quickly. The United States is supporting nations like Japan and Korea as they do the hard work of reconciliation. The President is hosting his second Pacific Island leaders’ summit next week to learn firsthand how smaller countries see the world and how the United States can help Navies and Coast Guards from those countries secure their boundaries, safeguard their resources and survive natural disasters.   

As Ambassador to Japan and Australia, I’ve learned a lot about how the world sees the United States. I’ve heard loud and clear that we are not perfect. But I also heard that American leadership and American partnership is still indispensable. American values still matter.  

The United States has always been a maritime nation. From our earliest days, our history was shaped by the sea. As an Atlantic and Pacific power dependent on trade and commerce, the U.S. Navy has always been at the center of our national identity, working to explore and understand the oceans and keep the seas free and open for all. The relationships we’ve developed, the lessons we have learned from countries represented here, have contributed enormously to our ability to operate effectively, and be a good partner – to provide training, support and humanitarian assistance. Most of all, the personal friendships across decades and distance have helped the United States live up to our values and allowed us to share critical capabilities in times of need.  

But as President Biden has often said, we are now at an inflection point. This is the decisive decade. Tensions are rising and maritime security is being challenged. I’ve seen it firsthand. When I was Ambassador to Japan, disputed features in the South China Sea were being militarized, even as we took President Xi at his word when he said it wouldn’t happen. The UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] decision in favor of the Philippines was handed down but disregarded. The waters around Japan were repeatedly swarmed by so-called “fishing vessels”, and North Korea was violating UN resolutions in ways that now look almost quaint.  

From my vantage point in Australia 10 years later, the change is dramatic. Access to the maritime commons and vital sea lanes is too often more difficult. Too many countries are prevented from fishing in their own waters. Too many provocative military actions happen routinely in the Taiwan Strait. The PRC’s large military build-up and coercive behavior presents challenges to the stability that underpins global trade, undersea communication and maritime cooperation. That’s why President Biden is working hard to manage our relationship with China in a responsible way. It’s why he wants to maintain and renew the lines of communication, engage with allies and partners, including this month when he upgraded our strategic partnership with Vietnam. It’s why he sent senior administration officials to visit Beijing in recent weeks, and we hope that dialogue will continue.  

Engagement matters. Navies know this best. You are the eyes and ears of the world. You work together along coastlines and far out at sea. Sailors are first to see the storms before they reach the shore. The most important advantage Navies have is their years of sharing information, cooperating on global challenges, building the trust that makes good decisions possible. The U.S. Navy is the biggest Navy, but we can’t be the smartest or the most effective without the help of everyone in this room.  

As President Kennedy challenged us 60 years ago, now is the time for each of us to ask what we can do. We can’t take peace and prosperity for granted. Those of us that are privileged to serve have the responsibility to lead. And only if we accept that responsibility will our children be able to live up to their full potential and enjoy the same opportunities that we have had.  

For each country, those answers will be different. The United States is engaging in a whole-of-government effort, learning and listening through opening new embassies, increasing our humanitarian and development assistance, supporting regional institutions like ASEAN and the Pacific Island Forum, and strengthening civil society so that countries can make their own choices about the future, free from coercion. Our private sector is investing in sustainable industries that put people and our planet first. We are working diplomatically in new and creative ways. The Quad, a grouping of four maritime democracies, is bringing cutting-edge capability to countries in the Pacific, South Asia and Southeast Asia. The Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness Initiative will connect countries in the region to real-time satellite information, allowing them to better monitor their waters and prepare for natural disasters. Combined with other efforts, like Partners in the Blue Pacific, in cooperation on quality infrastructure, the rest of the U.S. government is complementing the work that our Navy and Coast Guard are doing, day in and day out.  

And we’re also determined to keep the peace. In the security space, we are working with other nations to increase information sharing, deterrence and create collective capacity. The AUKUS partnership is a great example. Bringing together Atlantic and Pacific allies with cutting-edge capability in nuclear power, conventionally armed submarines will help preserve stability in the Indo-Pacific. Just as exciting is its potential to accelerate new technological developments in quantum, AI and the undersea domain. These efforts will benefit the global community, just as the space program did with GPS, solar panels, heart monitors and water purification systems. AUKUS may be the most visible new partnership, but other countries are also working together to protect the global maritime commons with each other and with the United States. For example, in the past year, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force conducted 32 multilateral exercises, with 24 allied and like-minded countries. Japan and Australia have signed a reciprocal-access agreement. Australia and the Philippines have upgraded their relationship. And the ROK is working to become a global pivotal nation, increasing its regional presence as well as its development assistance. Thirteen countries have signed ship-rider agreements with the United States, to help protect their boundaries, combat piracy and trafficking, and preserve life-sustaining resources – otherwise known as fish. 

Bilateral exercises like Talisman Saber, Balikatan, Cobra Gold have become multilateral. RIMPAC brings 28 nations together.  And the Pacific Partnership Exercise is the largest humanitarian exercise in the Indo-Pacific. 

These activities have benefits far beyond the exercises themselves.  While they allow Navies to operate collaboratively, they also allow countries to learn from each other – to celebrate our shared love of the sea. They are a real and powerful demonstration of our values: respect for others, long-standing relationships, and our commitment to the free and open exchange of commerce and ideas.  Now is the time to advance and expand these opportunities. 

And because we are talking about sailors, they are also a chance to have a good time.  I hope that all of you make the most of this week here at ISS.  It’s an incredible opportunity, and thank you for letting me be part of it.