A conversation with
Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Belfer Professor of Technology and Global Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School
United States Secretary of Defense (2015-2017)
David Gergen (Moderator)
Public Service Professor of Public Leadership &
Faculty Director, Center for Public Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School
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Ash Carter, Former Secretary of Defense and Director of the Belfer Center, addressed the forum on the US campaign to destroy ISIS. Secretary Carter discussed the changing nature of the battle, the importance of maintaining strong allies in the region, and future challenges that the US could face in battling ISIS. David Gergen, Harvard Kennedy School Professor and Faculty Director of the Center For Public Leadership, moderated the forum.
Ash Carter currently serves as the Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School. He also is an innovation fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Most recently, Carter served as the 25th Secretary of Defense. For over thirty-five years inside government under presidents of both political parties as well as in the private sector, Ash Carter has leveraged his extraordinary experience in national security, technology and innovation to defend the United States and make a better world.
Carter served as Defense Secretary from 2015 to 2017. Leading the largest organization in the world with more than three million civilian and military employees and an annual budget of more than half a trillion dollars, Carter became known for his savvy leadership and for ensuring the Pentagon thought “outside its five-sided box.” At a time of global change and congressional gridlock, Carter transformed the way the Defense Department fought adversaries, stood with allies and partners, planned and budgeted, partnered with private enterprises, and managed its talent.
As Secretary, Carter advised President Obama and transformed the department’s strategic thinking and operations on critical global challenges and across the domains of armed conflict – not just sea and air and land, but also in space and cyberspace. He changed the trajectory of the military campaign to deliver ISIL a lasting defeat, coordinating a global coalition of dozens of nations, simultaneously conducting operations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and beyond, and eliminating ISIL’s leaders and plotters. Carter also designed and executed the strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific, established the Defense Department and NATO’s new playbook for confronting Russia’s aggression, and launched the Defense Department’s latest cyber strategy.
At the same time Carter directed America’s global operations, he also spearheaded revolutionary improvements to the Defense Department. To develop new technological and operational capabilities, he pushed investments in research and development to nearly $72 billion dollars in the fiscal year 2017 budget alone. Carter also launched six transformative ‘Force of the Future’ initiatives to change the way the department recruits, trains, and retains quality people, and he also directed the opening of all military positions to women without exception. And to make the department more innovative, Carter created the Defense Digital Service to bring tech experts into the Pentagon for a tour of duty. He also opened Pentagon outposts in Silicon Valley, Boston, Austin, and other tech hubs to reconnect the government and military with visionary private sector leaders and companies, and established the Department’s first Defense Innovation Board, which attracted thought leaders such as Google Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt, astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, and many more, as well as the Pentagon’s Chief Innovation Officer position.
Before becoming Secretary of Defense, Carter served in the department’s number two and number three jobs.
As Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer from 2011 to 2013, he oversaw the department’s management and personnel and steered strategy and budget through the turmoil of sequester. As Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (ATL) from 2009 to 2011, Carter led the department’s procurement reform and innovation agenda, the successful completion of key procurements like the KC-46 tanker and the cancellation of unsuccessful programs like the presidential helicopter, rapid acquisitions (including the development of thousands of mine-resistant ambush protected “MRAP” vehicles that saved countless service members’ lives in Afghanistan and elsewhere), and global logistics for the largest enterprise on earth.
Earlier in his government career, Carter served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy from 1993 to 1996. He was responsible for the Nunn-Lugar program that removed and eliminated nuclear weapons in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, the military planning during the 1994 crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and the U.S. nuclear arsenal. In the Defense Department and on Capitol Hill during the Cold War, Carter was known for his work on missile defense and the then-Strategic Defense Initiative, as well as basing options for the MX Missile. Over the past three decades, Carter has also served on the Defense Policy Board, the Defense Science Board, and the Secretary of State’s International Security Advisory Board.
In addition to his government service, Carter has taught at many of the world’s outstanding academic institutions. He has been a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a lecturer at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. At Harvard’s Kennedy School from 1996 to 2009, Carter was a Professor of Science and International Affairs and Chair of the International & Global Affairs faculty. He served as a physics instructor at Oxford University, a postdoctoral fellow at Rockefeller University and M.I.T., and an experimental research associate at Brookhaven and Fermilab National Laboratories. Secretary Carter is also author or co-author of 11 books and more than 100 articles on physics, technology, national security, and management.
Outside of government and the university, Carter was a Senior Executive at the Markle Foundation’s America-wide initiative to shape technology and trade strategies to enable all Americans to flourish in a networked global economy. Previously Carter was a Senior Partner of Global Technology Partners focused on advising major investment firms in technology, and an advisor on global affairs to Goldman Sachs. Carter has also served on the boards of the MITRE Corporation, Mitretek Systems, and Lincoln Laboratories at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) and as a member of the Draper Laboratory Corporation. He was also elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is a board member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the Aspen Strategy Group.
For his government service, Secretary Carter has been awarded the Department of Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the department’s highest civilian honor, on five separate occasions, and he twice received the Joint Distinguished Service Medal from the Chairman and Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Secretary Carter earned his bachelor’s degrees in physics and in medieval history, summa cum laude, at Yale University, where he was also awarded Phi Beta Kappa; and he received his doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.
David Gergen is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, positions he has held for over a decade. In addition, he serves as a senior political analyst for CNN and works actively with a rising generation of new leaders. In the past, he has served as a White House adviser to four U.S. presidents of both parties: Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. He wrote about those experiences in his New York Times best-seller, Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership, Nixon to Clinton (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
In the 1980s, he began a career in journalism. Starting with the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour in 1984, Professor Gergen has been a regular commentator on public affairs for some 30 years. Twice he has been a member of election coverage teams that won Peabody awards, and he has contributed to two Emmy award-winning political analysis teams. In the late 1980s, he was chief editor of U.S. News & World Report, working with publisher Mort Zuckerman to achieve record gains in circulation and advertising.
Over the years, Professor Gergen has been active on many non-profit boards, serving in the past on the boards of both Yale and Duke Universities. Among his current boards are The Mission Continues, The Trilateral Commission, and Elon University’s School of Law.
Professor Gergen's work as director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School has enabled him to work closely with a rising generation of younger leaders, especially social entrepreneurs, military veterans and Young Global Leaders chosen by the World Economic Forum. Through the generosity of outside donors, the Center helps to provide scholarships to over 100 students a year, preparing them to serve as leaders for the common good. The Center also promotes scholarship at the frontiers of leadership studies.
A native of North Carolina, Professor Gergen is a member of the D.C. Bar, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the U.S. executive committee for the Trilateral Commission. He is an honors graduate of Yale and the Harvard Law School. He has been awarded 27 honorary degrees.
Professor Gergen has been married since 1967 to Anne Elizabeth Gergen of England, a family therapist. They have two children and five grand-children. Son Christopher is a social entrepreneur in North Carolina as well as an author and member of the Duke faculty. Daughter Katherine is a family doctor, working with the underserved population at the Boston Medical Center.