Great Atlanticists on Atlanticism

The purpose of the Council’s annual Leadership Awards is to honor Americans and Europeans who have made exceptional and distinctive contributions to the strengthening each of the four pillars of the transatlantic relationship: political, military, business, and humanitarian.  In their acceptance speeches, each of the 2010 honorees taught us a little something about being an Atlanticist.

General Stéphane Abrial , the 2010 Distinguished Military Leader co-winner, humbly deflecting his own personal accomplishment and accepting the award as “intended to acknowledge my country’s full reintegration into the alliance’s military structures.”

For 61 years, NATO has been more than a mere defensive line. It has above all been a sustained force for unity between the civil and military leaders, the troops, industries and the peoples of freedom-loving nations on both sides of the Atlantic. And today, we have a U.S. supreme commander in Europe and a European supreme commander in the U.S. as a new and powerful symbol of our trans-Atlantic link. This new situation is just one of many signs that it is not business as usual in NATO.

Of course, there are real and constant challenges to be met and overcome. I recently found the following analysis in a learned journal. I quote, “For several years, various prognoses have been made as to how soon NATO or its subordinate agencies would fly apart from the centrifugal forces of divergent self-interest.” Full disclosure, that article was published in 1959. (Laughter.) It seems everyone for six decades was accompanied by dire predictions of the demise of the alliance.

General James Mattis, his co-awardee, spent much of his speech praising his “magnificent comrade-in-arms.” He turned to what France’s reintegration means for the transatlantic relationship.

I went back to 1966 and read President Johnson’s note to President de Gaulle urging France not to leave the military command structure. But President Johnson went on to say that if France felt that it must leave, and I quote, “as our old friend and ally, France’s place will await her whenever she decides to resume her leading role,” end quote. How often – how often do any of us get to participate in any event in international affairs that is as universally applauded as France returning to her leading role in our military alliance?


France was sending an unmistakable message to the world that we democracies would stand together, reassuring like-minded nations that the values of the enlightenment would be protected, tempering the designs of those who bear us ill will. Such is the message of a reinvigorated, reinforced alliance, buttressed once again by France’s national statement of resolve demonstrated in this historic step.

Peace is not a passive virtue. Even as we celebrate tonight the continued existence of our experiments that you and I call democracy, our young men and women endure danger and discomfort, our alliance leading more than 40 nations in the defining fight of the decade against an enemy practicing medieval and even primitive values, practicing tyranny dressed in false religious garb.

We didn’t choose this fight; rather, it was forced on us. Those who attacked us on 9/11; those who attacked London on 7/7; attacked Madrid; Beslan, Russia; Mumbai; Bali and scores more – they thought that by hurting us they could scare us. They did not realize that the descendants of Verdun and Normandy are not made of cotton candy.

Thus, we can see France’s timely and full reintegration into the military and command structure for the political message it sends to those who believe in the murder of innocents. What blunter statement could demonstrate our democracies’ awesome determination to defend ourselves and our values than France’s reintegration?

Dr. Josef Ackermann, the 2010 Distinguished Business Leader, told the audience that his passion for business and lifelong Atlanticism was sparked in his youth by a six-week visit to the United States and by a short visit by an American president to Europe.

As a young European, I got off that plane and, for the first time, experienced America, at the start of that six-week road trip. I was overwhelmed by what I saw. The dimensions; the diversity; the many different cultures; the entrepreneurial dynamism, and the energy. My first impressions of America have stayed with me all my life.

And, as Chuck [Hagel] told you: shortly before I came to America, a young American President came to Europe. I don’t need to tell you what he said in Berlin. His words inspired millions. And speaking in Frankfurt, Deutsche Bank’s home city, John F. Kennedy said, “we live in an age of interdependence as well as independence – an age of internationalism as well as nationalism…today, there are no exclusively German problems, or American problems, or even European problems. There are world problems – and our two countries are inextricably bound together.”

I was inspired by his commitment to cooperation – working together across boundaries towards a common goal. He seemed to be saying, “Ask what you can do for your country — but also, what your country can do for the world.”

The result of that c-operation was the greatest period of peace and prosperity that modern Europe has ever known.

Bono, the 2010 Distinguished Humanitarian Leader, shared a conversation he had with then-Marine General Jim Jones (himself the 2007 Distinguished Military Leader) about wanting to avoid having his men killed for “the wrong reason,” namely, “being American.”

Now, why did the general’s words send such a shiver down my spine?  If you haven’t noticed, my spine is Irish, and why should I care?  Well, because all of us have a stake in this word “America.”  From rock stars in D.C. to street kids in Rio from Harlem to Haiti from Cape Town to Cairo, we all have a stake in this word “America.”

Now, why?  That’s because America is not just a country; it’s an idea.  Ireland is a great country.  I love it.  It’s been everything to me.  It’s not an idea.  This country is an idea and it’s a great idea.  So we fight, we argue, we bitch, we protest, we pontificate, we sound off like I am tonight because we know somewhere in our waters that this place is not just a country.  It’s an idea, a contagious thought; not just a physical landscape or a people defined by their borders.

And I just wanted to tell you tonight that I really believe in the idea of America and I believe in it because at its core is a three-corded strand as important to me as rhythm, melody and harmony.  I’m talking about equality, justice and opportunity for all.  That’s a catchy melody you’ve got there.

Former President Bill Clinton, the 2010 Distinguished International Leader, recalled the hard choices he had to make in the 1990s.

We began that whole process of defining a 21st century mission for NATO as has been said earlier when I was president. It was continued under President Bush and that policy has been continued under President Obama. And I think that’s the ultimate validation of a policy: if it’s embraced by people of both parties because it’s good for America, good for the world and good for the future.

For all of you, you’re here tonight because you know that we need to organize ourselves to reflect the reality that our destinies are entwined, no less than they were in the Cold War. I was the first president to serve his entire term after the Cold War. And there were many people who were saying, well, we ought to just reduce our international involvements. America was having a tough economy. And we just – we really don’t need to be doing this.

He recalled, in some detail, the public opposition to military involvement in Bosnia and Kosovo, giving financial aid to Mexico, and helping Russia, or erstwhile Cold War adversary, get back on its feet and explained why he thought each of those was ultimately the right call.   He then continued,

I say that not to be self-serving, but to point out that one of the things that has held the world together since the end of the Cold War is a generalized understanding that whether we’re fighting or working together – when the Berlin Wall came down and revealed a lot of new conflicts – ugly ethnic conflicts – it also proved that our destinies were more intertwined than ever before. This is the more interdependent age in human history.


We live in an interdependent world. It has three huge problems: It is too unequal. It is too unstable. And because of the changes in the climate, it is not sustainable. And so I submit to you that whether you’re honoring someone like my friend Bono who sang in the rain at my library dedication or generals in a joint command for NATO or pushing the Afghan mission or a great banker who also believes that we can change the way we produce and consume energy – every one of them in different ways is involved in affirming our common humanity and reacting to the realities of the time by trying to make the world less unequal or less unstable or less unsustainable.

And that’s why the Atlantic alliance is relevant today. That’s why the Atlantic Council is relevant today. That’s why we should really care about our friends in Greece. It’s a great country. They made a mistake. I remember pleading for help for Argentina when they got in trouble not long after I left office. And one of the members of the second President Bush’s administration who was a very good friend of mine – a man I respected then and I respect now. We had a heck of an argument over this.

He said, why should we help them? They screwed up. I said, yeah, they did. (Chuckles.) I said, do you ever need any help when you didn’t screw up? (Laughter.) I said, last time I checked, that’s when we all need help.

Later, Clinton gave us what might be called The Clinton Doctrine had it been enunciated a decade ago:

If you ask me my position on anything – and I mean anything – a little switch in my mind goes on and I ask myself, will this build up the positive forces of interdependence and reduce the negative ones? If it will, I’m for it. If it won’t, I’m against it. We all need a framework like that.

The reality, as Clinton’s discussion of poll numbers makes clear, is that making these hard decisions is complicated.  Politicians have not only a self-interest in getting re-elected and pleasing their constituents but a very real responsibility to put the interests of their own country and its people first and foremost.  Spending a nation’s blood and treasure can not and should not be done based only on global considerations.

At the same time, however, we should expect our leaders to weigh these complex questions with the longer view in mind.  Short term pain is often well worth enduring if it’ll prevent disaster down the road.  As Clinton put it, “people hire presidents to win for America and to win for the world and to look around the corners and you’re either right or wrong; you got to live with it.”  And if that means being fired for doing the right thing, that’s the burden of command.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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