The 2024 Distinguished Leadership Awards: Celebrating leaders with insight, experience, and resolve

This year has already presented both cause for celebration, as transatlantic allies cheered NATO’s seventy-fifth anniversary, and cause for concern, amid war in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.

These tests require skilled leaders at the helm, working every day to fortify alliances, deter threats, strengthen economies, and protect the most vulnerable.

“With sufficient political will, we can not only navigate these difficulties, but emerge even stronger,” said Frederick Kempe, Atlantic Council president and chief executive officer, Wednesday night at the Distinguished Leadership Awards. At the Waldorf Astoria in Washington before a high-level crowd of six hundred from more than fifty countries, the Atlantic Council recognized four such leaders who are paving the way to a better future.

Romanian President Klaus Werner Iohannis has adeptly led Romania through a period of insecurity in Europe, stepped up efforts to support Ukraine, and bolstered NATO’s defenses on the Alliance’s eastern flank.

US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo has skillfully led the department in navigating global trade tensions and empowering US businesses.

General Christopher G. Cavoli, who is both the supreme allied commander Europe and commander of US European Command, is forging a force that is more prepared and equipped to ensure that NATO and the United States are ready to defend against today’s rising global threats.

Actress and producer Michelle Yeoh—the first Asian person to win an Academy Award for best actress—is accomplished in both her artistry and her advocacy for women, those living in poverty, and refugees facing disasters and crises, through her work with the United Nations Development Programme and the International Olympic Committee.

“As we navigate the social, economic, and political issues that define one of the most fragile—if not foreboding—moments of our time,” said Atlantic Council Chairman John F.W. Rogers, “it is vital that we are guided by people of insight and experience and resolve: leaders who confront obstacles with the confidence and the steady hand that will help chart a course towards a more stable and secure world order.”

Below are more highlights from the evening.

Klaus Werner Iohannis: “The United States has no better ally than Romania”

  • Iohannis spoke of Romania’s commitment to being a “proud NATO member” and “US partner and friend.”
  • He recalled how then Vice President Joe Biden received the Distinguished International Leadership Award in 2011 and spoke about how the United States was changing its relationship with Central Europe—from one more geared toward assistance to one of mutually beneficial partnership. “Our countries stepped up to meet the responsibilities of being America’s eastward partners and allies,” Iohannis said.
  • Iohannis has shown “what nations of vision can achieve with a steadfast commitment to democracy, fairness, competence, and the rule of law,” said Stephen J. Hadley, chairman of the Atlantic Council’s International Advisory Board and a former US national security advisor, in presenting the award.
  • Iohannis pointed to the Bucharest Nine, spearheaded by him and Polish President Andrzej Duda, which gathered NATO’s eastern flank countries together to coordinate their security resources. “Our countries have been empowered to act with unity and resolve and to put up a strong deterrent against the Russian expansionism, while at the same time holding true to our core transatlantic democratic values,” he said.
  • Iohannis said that the impact of such coordination can be seen in how these eastern flank countries have responded to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Romania, for example, has opened its door to Ukrainian refugees and has helped facilitate the maritime transport of Ukrainian grain. “All these efforts continue, for as long as it takes,” he said, “because we know that Romania plays a key role in helping Ukraine achieve victory and peace, succeed economically, and integrate into the European Union.”
  • When it comes to Biden’s call for partnership, “Romania took this call seriously,” Iohannis said. Enhancing collective security, advancing freedom, and strengthening democracy are “our shared responsibility,” he said. “You can count on our ability to carry through.”
  • “The United States has no better ally than Romania,” he said.

Gina Raimondo: “The world is a safer place when America leads”

  • Upon assuming her role as secretary of commerce, Raimondo quickly realized “the absolutely vital role that the Commerce Department plays in ensuring our national security,” she explained. “Because our economic strength—our economic competitiveness—is national security, and that is truer now than it has ever been.”
  • To maintain a mighty US economy, the secretary said, “we have to continue to invest at home, deepen our commercial relationships around the world, and work alongside our allies to fuel innovation. And, of course, we must protect our most sensitive technology from falling into the wrong hands.”
  • “The world is a safer place when America leads,” she said, “and our ability to lead depends entirely on the strength of the US economy, its dynamism, and the speed at which we innovate.”
  • Rogers, in presenting the award to Raimondo, said that the secretary is one of a “rare handful who come along each generation . . . with the capacity to help the rest of us not only see what the future can be, but can lead us to it, who can show us the way.”
  • Raimondo noted that on a recent trip to Costa Rica to discuss semiconductor supply chains, she was joined by the commander of US Southern Command, General Laura Richardson—a 2023 Distinguished Leadership Awards honoree—a sign of the issue’s importance to the military. “Whether we’re talking about enhancing supply chain resiliency with our investments in Latin America, working with our allies in Europe, expanding our commercial presence in the Indo-Pacific, it has never been truer that our national security and economic competitiveness are interconnected.”

Christopher G. Cavoli: NATO is “stronger today than ever”

  • “Our Alliance is so much more than simply a promise of collective defense,” Cavoli said of NATO. “It’s a promise of a wonderful future. It’s a promise of a future based on shared values of liberty, freedom, and democracy.”
  • Cavoli spoke about “living the Alliance” in Italy, Germany, and the United States, first as a child in a military family, and now with his own wife and children.
  • “But today, dark clouds gather on the horizon,” Cavoli said. “The specter of war once again hangs over the European continent and indeed the world.” Russia’s “ruthless, unprovoked, senseless” invasion of Ukraine is the latest test of the Alliance.
  • “History doesn’t always come easy, doesn’t always flow nicely, and this is one of those times,” Cavoli explained. “An adversary has threatened us, and we respond, but our response is historic. It’s such a privilege for me to be a part of that response.”
  • Today, NATO is “reinvigorating our system of collective defense,” Cavoli said. The Alliance has “developed and approved plans to defend every square inch” of NATO member states’ territory, he added.
  • NATO nations “have raised their defense spending dramatically in the past two years” and are “learning and modernizing at the speed of innovation that we see in the war in Ukraine.”
  • “We are stronger today than ever,” Cavoli said of NATO. “It is fantastic—unexpected. And yet it’s not unexpected. It’s what we do.”
  • “Many officers aspire to high command, but too few understand that being a war fighter means forging a team that must be able to fight and win tomorrow,” retired General John P. Abizaid, former commander of US Central Command, said in presenting the award. “In Chris Cavoli, our nation has built a gifted soldier, statesman, and leader.”

Michelle Yeoh: “We have to go all in” on fighting for gender equality

  • Accepting her Distinguished Artistic Leadership Award, Yeoh reflected on a “life-changing” moment that “shook [her] outlook on the world” in 2015: when she and her husband found themselves in Nepal in the middle of a massive and deadly earthquake that claimed eight thousand lives.
  • “Crises like this expose deep preexisting inequalities,” Yeoh said. “Those living in poverty, especially women and girls, bear the brunt of it. A world that is already unfair becomes even more unfair.”
  • Through her work on films and as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme, Yeoh said that she is “determined to use [her] voice to advocate for gender equality globally.” The issue is “very personal to me,” she explained, as a female and Asian actress now in her early sixties.
  • “I know a thing or two about discrimination. I have spent my decades-long career fighting against stereotypes based on gender, race, and age,” she said. “But time and time again, I refused to accept an unfair world,” she added. “Today, I am living proof that change is possible.”
  • Tony, Emmy, and Grammy award-winning actress Cynthia Erivo hailed Yeoh’s longtime advocacy in presenting the award. “She is a symbol of perseverance, empowerment, and an inspiration to us all.”
  • “As a society, we are far from where we need to be when it comes to gender equality,” Yeoh said. For example, women around the world still shoulder the bulk of unpaid work. “When women earn more, everyone wins,” she added, noting that global wealth could increase by $172 trillion if women had the same earnings as men.
  • But with the current pace of change, she added, it would take another three hundred years to achieve full gender parity. “Sorry, but I’m really too impatient for that.”
  • “Let’s not let anyone tell us that our goals are too ambitious or that we will never achieve them,” she said. “It’s never too late. After all, I won my first Golden Globe and Oscar at sixty. I know something about perseverance. And I know that we can fight for gender equality. But we have to do it together, and we have to go all in.”

Katherine Walla is an associate director on the editorial team at the Atlantic Council.

Further reading

Image: Bria Skonberg performs at the Distinguished Leadership Awards on May 8, 2024.