Last night, the Atlantic Council held its annual Awards Dinner, bringing together more than 900 leaders from over 50 countries to honor individuals who have made exceptional and distinctive contributions to the strengthening each of the four pillars of the transatlantic relationship: political, military, business, and humanitarian.
Our distinguished guests included ten current or former heads of state and government, two dozen members of Congress, 40 ambassadors to the United States and 35 global chief executives, and numerous senior officials of the Obama administration.
When I attended my first of these three years ago, honoring Tony Blair, Mike Mullen, Rupert Murdock, and Evgeny Kissin, I feared that we had set the bar so high that it would be impossible to reach again. But we did the very next year, honoring George H.W. Bush, Helmut Kohl, David Petraeus, Sam Palmisano, and Thomas Hampson. And, while we may never top that in my mind — Bush was my commander-in-chief and a personal hero and Petraeus is the embodiment of the scholar-warrior — the star power of Bill Clinton, Bono, Josef Ackerman, Jim Mattis, and Stéphane Abrial is off the charts. I’ll let others worry about next year.
As always, the evening was a mix of poignancy and frivolity, combining the genuine affection for the service and accomplishment of the honorees, remembrance of the sacrifice of men and women in harm’s way around the world, reminiscences about shared values and experiences, and the good-natured ribbing that men of extraordinary accomplishment can dish out to those they hold in the utmost esteem.
In later posts, I’ll touch on some of the substantive policy discussion in the speeches but the remainder this post is a feeble attempt to capture some of the best lines and moments of the night.
General Brent Scowcroft, chairman of the Atlantic Council’s International Advisory Board, introduced Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and 2008 Distinguished Military Leadership Award honoree, with a series of warm remarks but closed “and he did it all with the handicap of having graduated from an inferior military academy.” Scowcroft, a career Air Force officer, graduated from West Point a decade before that service would get its own academy. Mullen, who was commissioned at Annapolis, quipped, “I take that as a high compliment.” Which, of course, was fully intended.
French Air Force General Stéphane Abrial, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation and co-recipient of this year’s Distinguished Military Leader Award, began his remarks paraphrasing President Obama’s reaction upon learning that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize after only months in office: “I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather” for the expectations of what I will do. He later quipped that being honored along with Bono significantly raised his “coolness factor” with his kids.
General James Mattis, his predecessor at ACT and co-awardee, spent much of his speech honoring his “magnificent comrade” and the NATO soldiers putting their life on the line around the world. Remarking on the significance of France’s reintegration into the Alliance, he reminded the audience of President Johnson’s temperate remarks upon France’s departure: “As our old friend and ally, France’s place awaits her wherever she decides to resume her leading role.” Mattis is incredibly thankful that she has decided to do just that, in the person of his magnificent comrade.
Dr. Josef Ackermann, the chief executive at Deutsche Bank, opened his remarks, “I’d like to thank the Atlantic Council for having the courage to give an award to a banker.” It has indeed been a rough couple of years for that profession. Thanks to Ackermann’s leadership, Deutsche Bank thrived while others failed — and needed no taxpayer bailouts.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening, at least to those not on the Council staff, was the seemingly unusual choice to introduce Bono, the recipient of the Humanitarian Leadership Award: War hero, Senator, and former Republican nominee for president John McCain. In addition to symbolizing that caring for people around the world living in desperate straits isn’t just something for “hippy peaceniks” (Bono’s words) the two have a close working relationship on the issues both the artist and the old warrior are passionate about.
McCain’s introduction included some Irish humor about the plight of the O’Reilly brothers and a joke at his own expense: “Another guy that ran for president was a guy named Mo Udall, and he said, he used to ask sympathy for the families of the state of Arizona, because Barry Goldwater from Arizona ran for president and Morris Udall ran for president and Bruce Babbitt from Arizona ran for president, and I from Arizona ran for president. And he used to say Arizona might be the only state in America where mothers don’t tell their children that someday they can grow up and be president of the United States.”
When Bono took the stage, it became clear why we use the term “rock star” to describe people who can inspire adulation in a crowd. Noting all the political and military dignitaries assembled in the room, Bono joked, “This really isn’t the Grammys, is it?” He then asked, “Who let the peacenik in?”
But he noted how much support he had gotten for his cause from the likes of McCain and present and former four-star generals, including “That well-known hippy, Jim Jones.”
Turning sentimental, he stated that, even as a proud Irishman, “All of us have a stake in this word, America. Why? Because it is not just a country but an idea.”
Toward the end of his remarks, he declared that, “It is smarter and cheaper to make friends now than defend ourselves against enemies later.”
Joe Scarborough, setting up the National Security Advisor for his presentation of the Distinguished International Leadership Award to the 42nd President, joked about the awkwardness backstage observing, “I came to Washington in 1994 to stop Bill Clinton.”
Former President George H.W. Bush appeared via pre-taped video to congratulate the man who succeeded him both in the White House and in receiving the Atlantic Council’s top honor.
General Jim Jones had perhaps the line of the night when he began his introduction of former President Bill Clinton with, “I think I’ve used my quota of jokes this week, so I’ll pass.” It was a subtle allusion to a silly kerfuffle over an old joke he modified slightly at the expense of the Taliban at another institution’s dinner event. He needn’t have worried: We’ve got a better sense of humor at the Atlantic Council.
Clinton took the stage announcing “Clinton’s Third Law: Always be introduced by someone you have appointed to high office.” Jones became 32nd commandant of the Marine Corps in 1999. Clinton later quipped, “I can only imagine what his introductions of President Obama will be like in a few years.”
In a speech that was alternately humorous, self-deprecating, and prideful, Clinton noted how overwhelming the public opposition to many of the things he was being honored for were at the time. He recalled, seemingly off the top of his head, that 78 percent opposed going in to the Balkans and that his own staff literally questioned his sanity when he decided to bail out Mexico from their financial disaster shortly after being drubbed in the 1994 midterms. He quipped that his decision to reach out to Boris Yeltsin’s Russia was relatively easy, “with only 76 percent” opposing.
While he was obviously keenly aware of polling numbers, he argued that leadership means doing the right thing despite public opposition. He noted that this was especially true in foreign policy where, “by definition, the president has much more information.” In the case of Mexico, particularly, he noted that the disaster that would have followed doing the popular thing at the moment would not have only been morally repugnant but it would also have been politically unpopular a year later. And the fact that the public opposed doing the right thing at the time wouldn’t matter.
All in all, another fantastic evening for which the Council and its staff can be proud. Particular thanks are due to Anna Eliasson Schamis, our vice president for Development and External Relations, and her entire team, especially Ania Voloshin, our director for Outreach and Public Programs, who spent months of hard work so that it all looked easy. The Council is also grateful, for a second year in a row, to “Morning Joe” hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski for their superb job of emceeing the event.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.