Inside Supply Management Magazine

Keynote speaker Dr. Robert Gatesopens ISM2015

May 03, 2015

Institute for Supply Management®'s (ISM®) 100th annual conference opened on Sunday afternoon in Phoenix with a dynamic keynote by Dr. Robert Gates, former United States Secretary of Defense. Dr. Gates, who served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, spoke about the many global challenges that currently impact our political and economic future.

“Over the last year or so, we are sailing in uncharted and increasingly perilous waters in the world,” said Gates to the packed crowd in the ballroom of the Phoenix Convention Center. As military forces withdraw from Iran and Iraq, a number of challenges have been created. He has supported many of President Obama’s decisions but is of the opinion that “a degrading of ISIS and pushing it out of Iraq would have been a better approach,” and recommends keeping a close eye on the entire region for the foreseeable future. This is the same for Syria, where efforts should be made to contain different conflicts from spreading or getting worse. It’s a tough call, because Dr. Gates admitted that he, along with most government officials, has no idea how the Syrian civil war will play out.

Regarding Russia — specifically, Vladimir Putin’s Russia — Dr. Gates noted that economic sanctions do not seem to be making much impact, and “under Putin’s regime, we can expect more efforts to thwart any U.S. influence.” He said with an economy smaller than Italy’s, Russia is not considered a true global rival.

China is a different story, he said. “It’s naive to think that financial self-interest will keep issues from escalating,” said Dr. Gates. Minor disputes could easily erupt into major problems as Chinese leaders are increasingly returning to nationalism. The U.S. will need well-informed and smart decisions from our government leaders to handle all of these delicate situations with tact, diplomacy and effectiveness.

In a brief question and answer period following his address, Dr. Gates was optimistic about what North American companies were doing as they establish operations in emerging economies. “Most U.S. and European countries are conscientious about sustainable development, and that includes environmental impact, local community development and education, and more. China, on the other hand, does not usually show the same concerns when they go into developing countries. We are on the right path.”

Regarding military capabilities and investment, Dr. Gates said we currently spend less on defense as a percentage of federal expenditures than any time since World War II. “We have the capability to invest in defense, but what we need is not a huge increase in defense spending. Rather, we need predictability in what we will spend. Without that, there will be unnecessary waste.”

The ability of terrorists to organize complex attacks on U.S. soil has been greatly reduced since 9/11, and Dr. Gates said he feels encouraged that terrorist threats at the moment “are not the kind of threats that need to distort the way you do business.” Of course, threats both domestic and overseas must be continually dealt with in a serious and comprehensive manner.

Dr. Gates also spoke about conflict minerals, his feelings on ending the embargo with Cuba (he felt it was “way overdue”), and the three areas that he hopes will be main topics as we move toward the next U.S. presidential election. “One, we need to keep a competitive relationship with China from becoming adversarial. Two, we have to keep focused on the Middle East. And third, I’d like to see Presidential candidates talking about the role of our military, especially how much we should invest in it and how we should use it.”

Overall, he is optimistic about the future of the U.S. “The thing that makes me feel the most optimistic about this country is the extraordinary quality of our young people. They are smart and they care about a lot of things.” This is not just true of people now entering the business world, but the military as well.

“We have amazing people who put on (military) uniforms in our country. In my career, probably the proudest thing I have ever done is serving them. It has been a privilege to work in service of our military men and women.”

The next ISM2015 keynote address is Monday afternoon, when Sallie Krawcheck, owner of Ellevate and past president of Bank of America Global Wealth Management. Keep checking this blog for summaries of ISM2015 workshop sessions, keynote speaker presentations and much more.