Hagel participated in a town hall meeting with members of U.S. European Command based at Stuttgart, Germany, during the first stop of a trip that's focused on protecting U.S. interests, with a special emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region.
"I'm here today, and then I'll leave tomorrow to go to India and spend a couple of days there," he said. "And then on to Australia, where I'll meet with [Secretary of State John F. Kerry] for what's referred to as a 'two-plus-two' meeting." In those meetings, which occur regularly with various nations, the U.S. secretary of state and secretary of defense meet with their counterparts from another nation, Hagel explained.
The secretary told his Eucom audience that what they're doing, what they represent, and the challenges they face are connected to the Asia-Pacific region and every part of the world.
"We're living at one of these not just unprecedented and historic times, but interconnected, complicated times that require all of us to view what we're doing in a larger framework of responsibilities," he said. "It's a bigger scope than any of us have ever had to work in before, that presents new challenges."
Today's world also presents new complications, he added, as well as a tremendous number of new possibilities never before seen.
In times like this, as in times before, the secretary said, the quality of the Defense Department's people and leadership are important.
"It depends on a wise, steady view of how we come at our jobs every day," Hagel said. "And I think every now and then we all need to be reminded of that, because we are, as we should be, focused on what we're doing."
The secretary noted that Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker visited India about a week ago to emphasize that U.S. and Indian interests are varied and common: stability, security, economics, possibilities and freedom.
"As you all know, India represents the largest democracy in the world," he said. "They just had an election. They have a new government. The new prime minister is coming to Washington to see President [Barack] Obama next month."
Hagel said he will visit the region to work specific issues, but added that "it's larger than that" because the area represents tremendous new opportunities and challenges.
"We need partners," he said. "We need relationships. That's the kind of world we live in, and that's the kind of world that we're going to be living in.
"In Australia, that relationship between our two countries has always been strong," he continued. "We share many, many common interests. And so, I look forward to having an opportunity to spend some time with the Australians and working through some of the big issues that we have together and certainly as specific powers representing the region."
The defense secretary laid out what he said are the three most important components of what the Defense Department is doing today and what its strategic interests are as reflected in the budget and the Quadrennial Defense Review: people, capabilities and partnerships.
"No institution can succeed or be what it can be without quality people," Hagel said. "[For] capabilities -- if we are going to ask our men and women to make sacrifices and do the things you all do every year, ... then we need to assure you that you'll have the capabilities that are required to stay ahead."
As far as partnerships are concerned, he said, continuing to build and enhance partners' capabilities is going on every day within NATO, in Europe, and also in Asia and the Pacific.
Hagel pointed to the partnership with Australia as a good example, noting joint exercises and a rotational U.S. Marine presence in Australia.
"We've ... recently signed an agreement with the Philippines to have a new rotational opportunity and agreement to use a couple of their bases," he added. "So the more that we can help build the capacities and capabilities of our partners all over the world, that gives them more of an opportunity not just to defend themselves and their interests, but [also to focus] on mutual interests."
Security and stability are the mutual interests all nations share, Hagel said, and those interests "give us all an opportunity to succeed and give our people opportunities to do better in their lives, educate their children and give everybody a possibility for a better life with individual liberty."
Today's challenging times shouldn't surprise anyone, the secretary said, noting that as the world continues to grow larger with more than 7 billion global citizens, boundaries essentially are meaningless when it comes to opportunities and threats.
"We're all going to live together, and we're going to have to find ways to deal with each other," he said. "And what you do every day in our military, in our national security apparatus, is not the only a building block, but it's a very important foundational piece of assuring that stability and security in the world."
Hagel acknowledged that it's not always easy to look beyond the tasks of the day to take in the big picture.
"I think because we all are so focused on what we do every day, occasionally, we don't remind ourselves enough of the bigger scope and responsibilities of what we have and why we do what we do," he said. "These times in history don't come very often. And when you're all sitting at a beach somewhere or whatever you like to do, with your grandchildren on your laps, you'll tell them about this time. You'll have an awful lot to say, and I think you'll have a lot to say in a very prideful way of how you did this. I think that's the kind of time in which we find ourselves."
Hagel expressed his appreciation to the audience and to their families for what they do.
"I'm personally very proud to be part of your team, to be part of what you're doing," he said. "And it's a great privilege to be doing what we're doing because not many people ever have a chance to make this kind of a difference in what they do in their lives."
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