Full transcript: The 2024 Distinguished Leadership Awards recognize skillful leaders navigating a world of crises

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JOHN F.W. ROGERS: I want to welcome everyone to the Atlantic Council Distinguished Leadership Awards. And it’s a pleasure to see all of you here tonight. And we gather to honor some of the world’s most impressive and influential leaders, and to highlight the Atlantic Council’s time-honored commitment to providing the intellectual, engaged global leadership necessary to meet the world’s most demanding challenges, and to ensure that self-determination, that freedom and prosperity can one day be an enduring reality across all nations.

We convene, however, at a decisive moment for the Atlantic Council and the world over. In an era of uncommon geopolitical uncertainty and unrest, as we navigate the social, economic, and political issues that define one of the most fragile, if not foreboding, moments of our time. 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. We are fortunate to have such individuals with us as we honor them tonight.

Moreso, the collective interest of peoples and of cultures and countries everywhere, with so much at stake, are fortunate to have our slate of honorees as their—at their posts, defending the principles of democracy and promoting a peaceful way of life [to] which all are entitled as a basic tenet of humanity—intrinsic and universal actually to all humankind. In no small way, the formidable trials we face in the world today are a reminder that the Atlantic Council raison d’être has never been more relevant or critically central to geopolitical harmony.

We must acknowledge that the work will be difficult, that the solutions are hard earned. But I say, with optimism and confidence, that we are prepared as we’ve ever been in our sixty-year history, with world-class thought leadership, tactical acumen, and operational expertise, to meet this moment with a single-minded resolve that is second to none. In doing so, working in tandem with our international partners, we are able to galvanize an influential network of global leaders and policy experts, whose own intellectual contribution and actionable strategies both complement and buttress the work of the Council. In solidarity we stand proven and ready to shape the global future together. That mission is greatly enriched by the distinguished leaders that we celebrate tonight.

An American president once observed, if your actions inspire others to dream, to learn more, to do more, and become more, you are a leader.

This year, the Atlantic Council recognizes that undeniable few who inspire us and the world to become more, to envision something better, to strive for something brighter, and safeguard those ideals that we hold dear. They represent the very best of our transatlantic partnership and serve as shining examples of the Atlantic Council’s highest aspirations.

And it’s now my privilege to add four exemplary leaders to the rolls of our past honorees who have distinguished themselves each in their own way and made an enduring if not indelible impact on the world.

Tonight we salute a high school physics teacher who became a mayor of his hometown, a leader of a national political party, and eventually reaching the highest rungs of his land, the president of Romania; an army brat who earned a degree in biology from Princeton, who speaks four languages, and who has forged a career from a combat infantryman to a supreme allied commander of Europe; a precocious student, one of the very first women ever to attend La Salle Academy, who would graduate valedictorian, become a Rhodes scholar, governor of her home state, and now the US secretary of Commerce; and an Academy Award winner, an action hero, and a reluctant Miss World contestant, an actress whose acclaimed roles include goodwill ambassador for the United Nations.

Ladies and gentlemen, these are our 2024 Distinguished Leader honorees, and I know I speak for all of us in this room when I say that we are in awe of their achievements, inspired by their character, and humbled in their presence.

Now please turn your attention to the screen, and we will begin the first of our videos honoring the president of Romania.

ANNOUNCER: To present the Distinguished International Leadership Award, please welcome Atlantic Council International Advisory Board chairman, Stephen J. Hadley.

STEPHEN J. HADLEY: Good evening. Thank you all for being here for this terrific evening program. We have a wonderful group of awardees, and I have the honor of introducing one of them to you now.

From his early days as a physics teacher in the small town of Sibiu, to serving as head of state of Romania, President Klaus Werner Iohannis has always had a vision for the future of his country. Over the course of his career, President Iohannis has led his country in bolstering judicial independence and strengthening the rule of law, increasing electoral participation, protecting the rights of minorities, and reforming Romania’s educational system. He has shown what nations of vision can achieve with a steadfast commitment to democracy, fairness, confidence, and rule of law.

Importantly, President Iohannis has always believed that there is no contradiction between a united Europe and a strong transatlantic alliance. Quite the contrary; they are mutually reinforcing.

As national security adviser to President George W. Bush, I was present in Romania’s capital city of Bucharest during the 2008 NATO Summit. I witnessed the failure of NATO to offer a membership action plan to Ukraine and Georgia, a failure that gave Russian President Vladimir Putin the belief that he could invade each of these countries without fear of a unified NATO response.

Now, with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine at their doorstep, Romanians have an enormous stake in maintaining and reinforcing European and allied unity. President Iohannis has responded by bolstering Romania and NATO’s defense of the alliance’s eastern flank, strengthening the US-Romanian strategic partnership, advocating for continued NATO and EU enlargement, and forging strategic partnerships with Japan and South Korea. Under his leadership, Romania has provided critical support to Ukraine in its fight for freedom and has been the most important route for Ukrainian grain shipments to the Global South by sea, road, and rail. As we celebrate President Iohannis tonight, let us hope that his principled leadership inspires others to face this historic moment as he has, with courage, with dedication, and above all, with vision.

And now, please join me in welcoming President Iohannis to the stage.

KLAUS WERNER IOHANNIS: Thank you very much. Good evening.

I am honored to receive this award. I accept it as a recognition of Romania’s leadership over the past twenty years as a proud NATO member, and US partner and friend.

Starting in 2001, a few years before we joined NATO, and then throughout our two decades of membership, Romania and the Romanian people have made bold, brave, and determined decisions to strengthen the democratic fabric of our society, live up to our transatlantic security commitments, and turn our country into an anchor of strategic stability, prosperity, and progress in a still troubled part of Europe.

Romania has set an example in many areas in Central and Eastern Europe from defending the eastern flank of NATO to investing in democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. These Romanian efforts have consequences that go far beyond our national borders. They, in fact, have helped strengthen Europe and the transatlantic alliance and they deserve to be recognized.

So I would like to thank Fred Kempe and the Atlantic Council board of directors for making this choice to recognize and honor Romania for these efforts. I’m also grateful to the former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley for the introduction tonight and for the unparalleled work in helping to shape and implement President George W. Bush’s vision of a Europe whole and free where Romanians and the other Central and East European nations can embrace dignity, democracy, and prosperity. We should honor this tonight as well.

In 2011 Vice President Joe Biden was on this stage for the same award and at the time made a very powerful statement about America’s engagement in Central Europe. He said, I quote, “The time for Central Europe has come. You have shown yourselves ready for common challenges, willing to tackle them, and able to overcome them. That’s why in America we no longer think in terms of what we can do for Central Europe but, rather, in terms of what we can do together with Central Europe.”

And, indeed, our country stepped up to meet the responsibilities of being America’s eastward partners and allies. That is how the Bucharest Nine format occurred, an initiative spearheaded in 2015 by Romania and Poland that includes all eastern flank nations and provides a robust platform to coordinate our security resources within NATO.

This is how most of our countries on the eastern flank have started to make progress in raising defense budgets and upgrading our military infrastructure and equipment. That is how 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.

There is no other more powerful proof of that than the way in which our countries on the eastern flank have responded to Russia’s unjustified aggression against Ukraine and to Ukraine’s vital needs to defend itself and to reject this horrible Russian attack.

As president of Romania I can tell you that Romania has truly been standing out in the first line through its efforts to help Ukraine. Over 7.5 million Ukrainians have crossed the border into Romania seeking refuge, safety, and safe passage. Almost forty thousand children are now studying in Romanian classrooms.

Millions of tons of humanitarian assistance have crossed into Ukraine through and from Romania. Romania also helped Ukraine maintain a vital economic lifeline, leveraging our unique maritime connections and facilitating the transit of almost forty million tons of grain, almost 70 percent of Ukrainian grain exports through the Romanian ports on the Danube River and the Black Sea. All these efforts continue for as long as it takes because we know that Romania plays a key role in helping Ukraine achieve victory and peace, succeed economically, and integrate into the European Union.

So my message to you tonight is, Romania took this call seriously. What can America do, together with Central Europe? We are working together to enhance our collective security, advanced freedom and economic progress, and make sure that democracy continues to deliver. It is our shared responsibility. And you can count on our ability to carry through because the United States has no better ally than Romania. I dedicate this award to all Romanians and to the partnership and friendship between Romania and the United States of America. Thank you very much.

ANNOUNCER: To present the Distinguished [International] Leadership Award, please welcome back John F.W. Rogers.

JOHN F.W. ROGERS: Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the Atlantic Council it’s a great privilege to recognize the honorable Gina Raimondo with a Distinguished International Leadership Award. We do so for her pioneering spirit, and her extraordinary record of achievement, for selfless service to people and causes that rise above self-interest or parochial interests, and for unflinching determination to always do what’s right to find a way forward and to see her vision through. In short, we honor Gina not for what she has accomplished but what she has accomplished for and on behalf of others.

And she does so with grace, and with understanding, with empathy, and, yes, with a relentless tenacity and a sense of purpose that make her an undeniable force of nature. And I think it was her son who best described it to me: Never stand in between an Italian woman and her objective. It’s no hyperbole to say that Gina is set apart with a rare handful who come along each generation, the most gifted and self-driven among us, be that innate or shaped by one’s experiences, with a 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.

You have all heard the expression, it is the hope that kills you. Now, usually that’s applied to my favorite sports team. But when you are on Gina’s team, it is the lack of hope that is fatal. Because she views the world through the optimistic lens of opportunity rather than dwelling on how difficult things may be, she focuses on getting things done. It’s something that I’ve had the opportunity to witness firsthand, or more aptly put, the privilege to be able to learn from, as we’ve partnered to support programs for small businesses during her tenure as Rhode Island’s governor. In a state where small enterprises employ nearly 50 percent of the private workforce, Gina made it her personal mission to create jobs and opportunities, if not a better way of life, for her constituents. From my front row seat, both her efforts and outcomes were nothing shy of awe-inspiring. But I’ve come to learn that that’s just Gina.

You know, an English poet once wrote, originality is being different from oneself, not others, which has at its essence, a message about exploring more, growing more, becoming more than who we are at the outset of life’s journey. And from her earliest years, Gina demonstrated a markable aptitude for progressive achievement. Further still, it seemed to be a rare sort of success, boldly crossing any lines of expectation. She was always improvising, innovating, pushing boundaries, even her own, showing us that being different from oneself is perhaps the most authentic way to be true to oneself, when considering the outer limits of our potential.

As an adolescent riding the public bus to school, Gina proved destined to be a trailblazer. She was among the first girls allowed to attend her high school, not an insignificant display of courage and grit for those, and all of us here, who can remember the tribulations of teenage years. She would go on to graduate as the class valedictorian, ratifying her right to be there in spades, and paving the way for girls to follow. More than that, Gina showed them what was possible, a real-world application of the adage, if you can see it, you can be it.

Continuing on to Harvard where she would graduate, here again, as the top economic student in her class, Gina found new areas for growth, if not her fair share of sprains, and bumps, and bruises by joining the women’s rugby team which she has since credited as being the good training for her career on politics. Something that I’m sure all of us can certainly understand.

She would go on to become a Rhodes Scholar and earn her doctorate at Oxford, where her thesis on single motherhood and her experiences with housing and poverty clinics inspired her passion for advocacy, and eventually, a law degree from Yale. Years later, having spent time in the private sector working for a venture capital firm before deciding to start her own investment firm, Gina recounts that it wasn’t until the prospect of local public libraries closing—the same institution that taught her immigrant grandfather to read English—that she redirected her efforts toward public service, first becoming the treasurer of her state, and four years later, the first woman governor of the state of Rhode Island.

And from her perch today as commerce secretary, Gina continues to create the conditions for good-paying jobs, thriving entrepreneurship, and a competitive business landscape. In doing so, she is roundly recognized for being innovative, pragmatic, open-minded, and most of all, collaborative. And by the way, if you ever took a college course on legislative processes in the US, you have come across a book, The Dance of Legislation, and you only need to look at the dance of the CHIPS Act as the case study of how she gets things done. All the while, she has managed to fulfill what she would describe as her most important duties, as a spouse and a mother of two. And I’m very happy that her husband is here tonight, Andy Moffit, to see her.

Let me conclude with these remarks: I think all of you may remember Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”: “Two roads diverged into a yellow wood, and sorry [I could not travel both. And be one traveler, long I stood, and looked down [one] as [far] as I could.”

But in the end of this poem, it is all that one road is chosen. “Took [the] one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Now, whether that is a satire on decision making, or a commentary on destiny, in any event, in Gina’s case her road has been few would ever be able to take, even if they wanted to, as it requires an echelon of insight, tenacity, charisma, and character. As such, by fortitude or fate, Gina Raimondo’s road has indeed been the one less taken, and that has made all the difference. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Secretary Raimondo.

GINA RAIMONDO: Thank you, John. I certainly feel unworthy of this award, but I think I feel even more unworthy of that introduction. A better friend you will not find then John Rogers, a man of grace, integrity, and passion. Thank you. He also knows me extremely well, so I was a little nervous when I heard he was introducing me. So I appreciate the kindness.

A huge thank you and gratitude to the Atlantic Council for this award. And more important, thank you for your work which has endured for more than sixty years to promote transatlantic cooperation and the core values that have made our world a better place. I also have to congratulate my fellow awardees. Mr. President, congratulations. Thank you for being with us. Thank you for your leadership. It’s quite humbling for me to share the stage with the honorees this evening.

I asked, why would I be chosen for this award? And I was told that it was in part because of the work I’ve done to advance US national security and the security of democracies around the world. Now, I have to be honest with you. When President Biden, or president-elect, asked me if I would serve as his commerce secretary, truth be told I wasn’t really sure what a commerce secretary did. Then you start learning about the job, and you realize you do everything from running the weather service to national fisheries, to space commerce, to export controls. So really, honestly, there’s not much you don’t do.

But it didn’t take me long to realize the absolutely vital role that the Commerce Department plays in ensuring our national security. And here’s why: Because our economic strength, our economic competitiveness is national security. And that is truer now than it has ever been, because in the twenty-first century, this technological age, the source of our strength isn’t just that we have the best, most advanced military in the world—although, of course, we do and we need to.

But the truth of the matter is that our ability to operate in the world, to lead the world, depends vitally on our economic strength. And as this institution knows well, the world is a safer place when America leads. And our ability to lead depends entirely on the strength of the US economy, its dynamism, and the speed at which we innovate. And so that’s why I’m so focused—persistent, as John would say, obsessed, as I have said—with helping US businesses to out-compete, and out-innovate, and to do that with our allies.

Because when I travel all around the globe, I often bring private sector leaders with me. And it’s America’s brands, America’s entrepreneurs, and our technical leadership that are the envy of the world. And it helps to make the US a partner of choice. But I’ll tell you, some of my most successful trips have included—have included trips where I’ve invited a top member of the US military to join me. I’ve done this several times, most recently to Costa Rica.

I had the great privilege to travel to Costa Rica with the [US Southern Command] Commander General Laura Richardson, first female four-star in the US Army. And why did we go together to Costa Rica? We went together to focus on diversifying and strengthening our semiconductor supply chains in the Western Hemisphere. This helps US companies to be more competitive, to diversify away from just one or two countries in Asia, and it enhances our national security. And as the president just said, it also allows us to show that democracy delivers. Democracy delivers jobs, investment, and opportunity.

And so 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 our economic competitiveness are interconnected and inexorably linked. If we want to secure resilient supply chains, if want a safe and prosperous future, and if we want to maintain US leadership, it all depends on the strength and dynamism of our economy and our private sector.

So tomorrow when I go back to work, or later this evening, it means we’re going to get back to work investing at home, investing in broadband, investing in manufacturing, investing in chips, investing in AI. It means we’re going to continue to work to deepen our commercial relationships with commercial partners and allies all across the world. And it means we’re going to work alongside our allies, many in this room, to fuel innovation, and to do it consistent with our shared values. And of course, we must always protect our most sensitive technology from falling into the wrong hands, those countries who don’t share our values.

So now I know what the Commerce Department secretary does. That’s what we’re focused on, the commerce secretary. And I will end by saying none of the work that I do, none of the work that the fifty thousand incredible employees that I have at the Commerce Department does would be possible without your support. With partners like the Atlantic Council, every person in this room—private sector, public sector, civil society—we have to stay committed now more than ever. So thank you to the Atlantic Council for your decades of dedication to supporting a strong international system, and thank you again for this great honor. Thank you.

ANNOUNCER: Please welcome Atlantic Council President and CEO Frederick Kempe.

FREDERICK KEMPE: So, first of all, congratulations to President Iohannis and Secretary Raimondo. What a wonderful start of the evening.

We’re about to go into the dinner break, and then after that we’ll be honoring General Cavoli and Michelle Yeoh.

But first I wanted to say something about the flags that you see here along the wall. These flags are to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of NATO, history’s most successful and enduring alliance. The flags represent all thirty-two members of the alliance, with the recent addition of Finland and Sweden. So welcome, Finland and Sweden.

Right now, and in honor of the alliance and before the break, and also in recognition of General Cavoli’s award upcoming, we’re going to present you a delicious appetizer in the form of a musical tribute to honor this year’s seventy-fifth anniversary of NATO. Joining America’s Own, an incredible brass and wind ensemble, please welcome Jazz at Lincoln Center favorite, trumpeter and celebrated recording artist, Bria Skonberg.

[Dinner break]

FREDERICK KEMPE: Hello, everybody. If you could take your seats, we’re going to continue our awards.

Ladies and gentlemen—ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, tonight’s honorees, thank you so night—for all coming out tonight for this small birthday party for my wife, Pam. Now, I promised Pam that I would do nothing to embarrass her in front of this vast audience. As one of America’s leading deception detectors, she should have known I was lying. But happy birthday, Pam. Thanks for participating with us. By the way, it’s also the 140th birthday of Harry Truman, but I’m going to come back to that. Pam is much younger.

With apologies, Pam, and on a more serious note, as you all know by now, we are here to celebrate a birthday that’s somewhat more fundamental to the purpose of the Atlantic Council. NATO was born seventy-five years ago, just down the street from here at Mellon Auditorium on April 4, 1949. That is when the alliance founders signed the world’s most—the world’s most enduring, history’s most enduring and successful alliance into being.

As I wrote on that anniversary, President Truman and other founders had an advantage, a really significant advantage, that today’s leaders cannot replicate. All of them had experienced—all of them had experienced the horrors of World War II. All the founders of the Atlantic Council—Dean Acheson, Mary Pillsbury Lord, Henry Cabot Lodge, Lucius Clay, they had all experienced those horrors. And a great many of them also personally knew the ravages of World War I. They understood the urgency of the moment. I’m not sure we do.

That deficit of memory is our greatest peril in 2024, a time when we are facing the greatest threats to global order since the 1930s. It’s perhaps why we have, in my view, responded insufficiently to the challenges of our age, recognizing too slowly the dangers posed by Russian despot Vladimir Putin and like-minded autocrats. One cannot change the historical experience of today’s alliance leaders, nor can one change the historic experience of their electorates. Even President Biden, at age eighty-one, was only two years old when World War II ended.

The best we can do is listen to President Harry S. Truman’s words from the day of the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty, and heed its warnings. And I quote: “Twice in recent years nations have felt the sickening blow of unprovoked aggression. Our peoples, to whom our governments are responsible, demand that these things shall not happen again. We are determined that they shall not happen again,” end quote, Harry Truman.

He called the treaty, a simple document. He likened it to a homeowner’s agreement to protect the neighborhood. He said, if it had existed in 1914 or 1939, the community it brought together could have prevented the acts of aggression which led to two world wars. It is in Truman’s spirit that we come together this evening as a global neighborhood and, as I said, by coincidence, this would be his 140th birthday.

You are sitting among six hundred individuals from more than fifty countries to celebrate Distinguished Leadership and tonight’s honorees. You are senior officials, global business executives, military brass, leading journalists, civil society leaders, and more. President Iohannis, General Cavoli, Secretary Raimondo, and Michelle Yeoh, congratulations and thank you for inspiring us all with your example of principled leadership toward a better world.

President Iohannis, you don’t know this, but my relationship with your country dates back to the time of Ceaușescu, when I was working as a journalist for Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal. And anyone who’s experienced any of that can only wonder at the miracle of Romania’s free markets, free peoples, membership in the European Union, NATO. None of that was to be taken for granted. So congratulations to Romania for that.

I can tell you a lot about my time in Romania. Our relationship, the Atlantic Council’s relationship with Romania, dates back to the NATO summit of 2008, where we hosted a youth summit, supported by Dinu Patriciu, who became a member of the Atlantic Council, in partnership with the intelligence leader at that time of Romania, George Maior, who was an ambassador here, with speakers that included President George W. Bush.

I think Steve Hadley was right that the outcome of that summit was not great. But I think the Atlantic Council’s relationship with Romania started there, and that’s terrific.

It’s great to have in the audience Alex Serban, who has been one of our strongest supporters in Bucharest ever since. It’s wonderful to be working with your embassy here and Ambassador Muraru. We have our partner in the audience, Remus Pricopie. And Remus, it’s so wonderful to work with you and your university.

President Iohannis, for us this is not a one-off event. We understood the strategic importance of Romania early on. And we’ve just wondered at how you’ve built it, and we agree with you that there is no better American ally than Romania. There are a lot of good Romanian allies, so we’ll count them equal. But there is no better.

Our honoring of you this evening marks a high point in this long and strategic relationship.

General Cavoli, we’ll be turning to you soon for your award. I know you’re joined tonight by members of your family. Oh, my God, how proud you must be of General Cavoli. It’s nice to have your family here.

In the early 1960s, the Atlantic Council’s founders debated a core question: How should they define the scope of their organization’s mission? Mary Pillsbury Lord, the sole signatory of the Council’s certificate of incorporation in 1961, argued for a global approach to transatlantic concerns. And there were people who were against her. But she wanted an approach for the Atlantic Council that went far beyond the United States and Europe.

I wish she were here today to see the Atlantic Council in this room. She foresaw the challenges we would face together. The Atlantic Council’s mission is to shape the global future together with partners and allies, building from our transatlantic base, but working closely with our global partners.

We do this at a time when we confront wars in Europe and the Middle East, continued tensions regarding China, a contest for the commanding heights of technological change, and a breathtaking slate of elections around the world. More than 50 percent of humanity is voting in this year, including our own elections this November.

We act, at the Atlantic Council, in the conviction that with sufficient political will, we can not only navigate these difficulties, but emerge even stronger. We do that across sixteen dynamically collaborative programs and centers, both regional and functional in nature.

Just last year, we were involved in major convenings in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Europe, and, of course, the United States. We took leading roles at COP28 in Dubai and at the IMF-World Bank meetings in Marrakesh.

Mary Pillsbury Lord, I wish you were here.

Our functional centers tackle geopolitical and geoeconomic issues, energy and climate issues, security and technological issues, the connection between freedom and prosperity. Tonight I’m delighted to announce the creation of something new, something we’re calling Atlantic Council Global Technology Programs, which will help galvanize all the amazing technology-related work we’re doing across the organization, with a focus on harnessing technology for good.

Managed by Atlantic Council Vice President Graham Brookie, this will bring together our GeoTech Center, our Digital Forensic Research Lab, our Cyber Statecraft Initiative, and our Technology and Democracy Initiative. It’ll work closely with the Scowcroft Center, which remains the lead on defense-related and strategic-related technologies, and the Europe Center, which leads our work on transatlantic technological cooperation, trying to build a transatlantic digital marketplace, and the Global Energy Center, which focuses on clean energy technology.

Bolstered by programmatic innovations like this, the Atlantic Council will move this fall—and I hope you’ll all come there—into a new global headquarters at 1400 L, just two blocks from our current office. It’s a gorgeous space. It will be a transformative move for the Atlantic Council. You will be in great company with members of our board and international advisory board leadership, who have also contributed and named high-profile spaces in the building. And on that score, let me thank Adrienne Arsht, John Rogers, and Phillipe Amon for stepping up first. I encourage anyone interested in learning more about our new global headquarters to speak to me or anyone else at the Atlantic Council.

These two announcements, the creation of the Atlantic Council Global Technology Program and the opening of our new global headquarters, are just two examples of our continued story of growth and innovation, a story so many of you in this audience helped write. Thanks to you, the Atlantic Council has become a remarkable force multiplier, and for our transatlantic and global partners in our quest to navigate these difficult times, hugely difficult times, and shape a freer and more prosperous and secure future.

And in that spirit, we now want to thank many of you who are here this evening as co-chairs of tonight’s distinguished leadership awards dinner. I’d ask you to turn your attention to the screens as we salute those individuals who have made this possible tonight. And I join my finance chair in George Lund, in thanking you so much for this. Please hold your applause so that everyone can hear the names and companies who have co-chaired this evening.

ANNOUNCER: And now, please join us in saluting the co-chairs of the 2024 Atlantic Council Distinguished Leadership Awards. We thank all of tonight’s sponsors for their generous support for this evening’s program, and for the Atlantic Council’s ongoing work to shape the global future together.

Adrienne Arsht. Sarah Beshar. John F.W. Rogers. RTX, represented by Greg Hayes. Airbus, represented by C. Jeffrey Knittel. Alpha Ring International, represented by Peter Liu. Robert J. Abernethy. Bank of America, represented by Larry Di Rita. Blackstone Charitable Foundation, represented by Stephen A. Schwarzman. Ahmed Charai. Chevron Corporation, represented by Albert J. Williams. Edelman, represented by Richard Edelman. E-INFRA Group, represented by Teofil Muresan. FedEx Corporation, represented by Gina F. Adams. Georgetown Entertainment Group, represented by Franco Nuschese. Google, represented by Karan Bhatia. Kirkland & Ellis, represented by Ivan Schlager. John and Susan Klein. KNDS, represented by Marcel Grisnigt. Leviatan Group, represented by Cătălin Robert Podaru. George Lund. Mapa Group, represented by Mehmet Nazif Günal. William Marron. Alexander V. Mirtchev. MITRE, represented by Keoki Jackson. Ahmet M. Oren. Pernod Ricard USA, represented by Tara Engel. Charles O. Rossotti. SAIC, represented by John Bonsell. Serban and Musneci Associates, represented by Alex Serban. Squire Patton Boggs, represented by Edward J. Newberry. Steptoe, represented by Karl Hopkins. Thales, represented by Alan Pellegrini. UPS, represented by Laura Lane. Ambassador Clifford M. Sobel.

FREDERICK KEMPE: I want to ask all the co-chairs to rise. If all the co-chairs could rise, so we can applaud you. Thank you so much. We can’t do our work without you. Thanks so much for that.

And finally, I’d like to ask the following individuals to rise. Some of you will be rising for a second time. So, International Advisory Board members of the Atlantic Council and Atlantic Council staff and board members of the Atlantic Council, please rise. Please join me in applauding this remarkable community of action.

One last point before our next honoree. Don’t forget to take your gift bags tonight. Which include my dear friend David Ignatius’ new novel, hot off the press, Phantom Orbit, generously contributed by Adrienne Arsht, and Frank McCourt’s provocative new book about managing our new digital age, Our Biggest Fight.

With that, ladies and gentlemen, please turn your attention to the screens as we salute tonight’s next honoree.

ANNOUNCER: To present our next awardee, please welcome General John Abizaid.

GENERAL JOHN P. ABIZAID (RET.): Good evening, everybody. It’s great to see you. I have the great honor of introducing to you General Chris Cavoli. Now, Cavoli and I have known each other for a long time. That’s very difficult for him to imagine what I’m going to say. But it’s all right. Relax, Chris.

But before we do that, I really want all the veterans of the United States armed forces and our allied nations in NATO to stand up and be recognized. Thank you. It’s great to have veterans in the audience.

I first met Chris when he was a lieutenant of infantry when I assumed command of the Third Battalion 325th Airborne Battalion Combat Team in Vicenza, Italy. In a battalion packed with the most talented junior officers in our Army, most of whom were top West Point graduates, Chris distinguished himself as a skilled leader and superb trainer. A Princeton graduate, he was well known for his famous undergraduate thesis entitled The Effect of Earthworms on the Vertical Distribution of Slime Molds in the Soil. As you could imagine, this work held him in good stead with the sergeants of the US Army Ranger School.

However, Chris demonstrated his true genius by marrying Christina Dacey, a smart, dynamic leader in her own right. These two professionals not only built wonderful careers together, they also built an Army family that traveled the world and had two sons who exhibit the great talents of both their parents.

Chris’s career is filled with remarkable achievements: a master’s degree in Russian studies at Yale, a foreign area officer who speaks Italian, Russian, and French. He personifies our nation’s commitment to the Atlantic alliance.

Not only does he understand the complexities of our most dangerous adversary but he knows how to fight and win. As a general he reformed the doctrine and structure of the alliance to reflect the realities of modern warfare and he ably assists our Ukrainian friends in their difficult struggle against Russian aggression.

He, along with his partners, have forged a formidable alliance. While his accomplishments of a general officer are great, I also honor him for his combat leadership. I can remember visiting his infantry battalion in one of the most restive dangerous provinces of Afghanistan.

There he led tough, disciplined American soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division while at the same time building professional confidence and competence of his Afghan allies. Here was a fit, dedicated, charismatic young colonel serving in one of the most isolated, dangerous places on earth and it was clear he held the respect of all.

His leadership is marked by courage both on and off the battlefield, by professional competence second to none, and by a remarkable common sense often not seen. Many officers aspire to high command but too few understand that being a warfighter means forging a team that must be able to fight and win tomorrow.

It’s been remarkable to know Chris all these years. He was the best lieutenant I ever knew, the best lieutenant colonel I ever knew, and the best general I know. In Chris Cavoli, our nation has built a gifted soldier, statesman, and leader. Thank God for his leadership at this dangerous time in our history.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome this remarkable soldier.

GENERAL CHRISTOPHER G. CAVOLI: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests. Way too many to mention you all. What a gathering.

Thank you all. I’m very deeply humbled to stand before you tonight, mostly because I recognize that this honor is really not about me. It’s really about the defenders of thirty-two nations, the men, women, and families of the United States and our NATO allies who tirelessly stand guard to secure our freedoms, and I thank them for that in front of you tonight.

General Abizaid, thank you for the far too kind introduction. Thank you for reminding everybody why I became an infantry officer, because I was not a biologist. Thank you for your leadership and your inspiration since I met you when I was a young lieutenant. There is no one I have wanted to emulate more. I’m so lucky to have you and Kathy here tonight.

To the Atlantic Council, thank you for this award. Your dedication to transatlantic cooperation is exemplary and it contributes to the peace and prosperity that we have come to enjoy.

My fellow honorees, it’s a privilege to share the stage with you. Your accomplishments remind us that security requires a full commitment from across all elements of society from everyone. So thank you. We salute you.

Finally, to my family—my wife, my brothers Jim and Steve, my parents. I think they provide a fitting backdrop to this evening. You see, my dad was born and raised in Italy. He lived there without his own dad throughout the war, the Second World War. Afterwards, he came to America. He became an officer. He married my mom, who is from the exact same small town in the Dolomites of northern Italy. We’re working with a very shallow gene pool here. He served a career devoted to our country and to the transatlantic alliance.

My brothers and I grew up as Army brats, as you have heard: Kansas, Texas, so forth, but also Germany and Italy. And my own sons—not here tonight, unfortunately; out in California—grew up the same way, in an Army family living abroad, living the alliance—living the alliance—because our alliance is so much more than simply a promise of collective defense. It’s a promise of a wonderful future. It’s a promise of a future based on shared values of liberty, freedom, and democracy.

It’s the promise that twelve nations made to each other seventy-five years ago this year. Standing amid the ruination of the Second World War, twelve nations banded together and they declared never again. For seventy-five years, we have held that line: An attack on one would be an attack on all. And so there was not an attack on anyone. There has been peace. It hasn’t been easy. We’ve been tested. We’ve been tried. But we have always come through, always. And we have together produced a world that was at peace and growing and prosperous.

But today, dark clouds gather on the horizon. The specter of war once again hangs over the European continent and, indeed, the world. Russia’s ruthless, unprovoked, senseless war in Ukraine stands as yet another, as the latest test to our alliance and to the globe.

And so NATO does what it does: It rises again to its mission. We are reinvigorating our system of collective defense. We have developed and approved plans to defend every square inch of our alliance. Nations are racing to resource those plans. Nations have raised their defense spending dramatically in the past two years. Our exercise program demonstrates our readiness, and we are learning and modernizing at the speed of innovation that we see in the war in Ukraine. We are stronger today than ever.

It is fantastic, unexpected, and yet it’s not unexpected. It’s what we do. We have always banded together. For seventy-five years, we have spotted the key problems, organized against them, and then faced them down. And we are doing that again. NATO is now stronger, it’s more united, it’s more determined, it is bigger than I have ever seen.

These are truly historic times, ladies and gentlemen. History doesn’t always come easy, doesn’t always flow nicely, and this is one of those times. An adversary has threatened us, and we respond. But our response is historic.

It’s such a privilege for me to be part of that response. It’s such a privilege to be part of that response. And it’s a privilege to be here tonight receiving this award on behalf of the brave men and women of our alliance. God bless you all. Thank you very much.

ANNOUNCER: To present our final award this evening, please welcome the Oscar-nominated, Tony, Grammy, and Emmy Award-winning artist, Cynthia Erivo.

CYNTHIA ERIVO: Good evening, excellencies and distinguished guests. It is an honor to be here with you tonight. I would like to thank the Atlantic Council, John Rogers, and the extraordinary Adrienne Arsht, who is also extremely stylish, for giving me the pleasure of presenting the 2024 Distinguished Artistic Leadership Award to my dear friend, Michelle Yeoh.

As we come together in celebration and recognition of global champions, it is no doubt that Michelle embodies the dedication, grace, and empowerment deserving of such an award. Her decades-long career is stellar in depth and dazzling in variety. From her captivating performances in martial arts to her magnetic portrayals in epic drama, her charisma and star quality is undeniable. Michelle is simply a trailblazer, a pioneer who has shattered glass ceilings and defied stereotypes, paving the way for future generations of artists to follow in her footsteps, just like me. Her dedication to her craft, her commitment to excellence, and her unwavering passion for storytelling serve as an inspiration to us all. She’s the reason I want to do my own stunts. Truly.

But it’s more than just her artistic talent that we recognize tonight. Any friend of Michelle knows that beyond her remarkable gifts on screen, she is a woman of humanity and compassion which extends well beyond her work in front of a camera. Her longtime advocacy for gender equality, ending poverty, and environmental protection is a testimony of her moral obligation to help others and fight against global inequality. In 2016, Michelle was appointed as goodwill ambassador of the United Nations Development Programme, a title she has taken dutifully to promote the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. She continues to use her platform to promote and mobilize her humanitarian efforts in hopes of securing a brighter future for our entire planet.

She is a symbol of perseverance, empowerment, and an inspiration to us all. So tonight, in honoring her excellence, unwavering passion, and inspiring character, it is my absolute pleasure to present—now, wait a minute. I also have to say that this extraordinary woman is one of the most stylish people I have ever met in my life. She is also one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I have ever had the privilege of standing in front of a screen with. It is not easy to sing in front of a camera, and now we have discovered that she can. And I can’t wait for all of you to hear that.

But, it is my absolute pleasure to present the 2024 Distinguished Artistic Leadership Award to the one and only, ever graceful and always elegant, Michelle Yeoh.

MICHELLE YEOH: Oh, gosh. Thank you, Cynthia. I can’t wait for all of you to see Elphaba played amazingly by Cynthia in October—no, November, Thanksgiving, soaring to the skies, not just physically but with her voice, as well. You all are in for a real treat, and thank you for all those kind words! I’m going to have to make up for that. Lovely, thank you.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It is a true pleasure and privilege to spend this evening in such amazing, great, and warm company. Thank you, Atlantic Council, for this prestigious honor. I don’t know what I did to deserve this.

Last week was surreal with the Medal of Freedom; this is—I think I’ve just gone to the heavens and I’m not coming back down for a while.

I would also like to congratulate my fellow honorees: Your Excellency, President Iohannis; Secretary Gina Raimondo; and Commander General Christopher Cavoli. I want to be a general like you. I am so humbled to share the stage with you tonight.

Over the past year, my life has been a whirlwind. It’s not an exaggeration to say that my life was everything everywhere all at once—changed in an instant when the Academy made me the first Asian to win an Oscar for best actress. It did take us ninety-seven years to get there, but at least we are there.

But tonight I would like to talk about another life-changing moment, one that shook my outlook on the world nine years ago. It was April 25, 2015, and I was in Nepal with my husband, Jean, visiting local organizations and doing advocacy for road safety.

Suddenly the ground beneath me began to shake, literally. I’ve never felt that type of instant gut-wrenching fear and panic as the earth trembled violently all around me. And you know I do some crazy stunts in some crazy action movies.

That moment, I dropped to the ground. I crawled to a door to escape the low-rise building we were in. A massive, deadly earthquake was ravaging the country. I was fortunate to survive that day unscathed, but the experience was truly harrowing. Its effects linger with me still.

As we made our way to the airport to be evacuated, I saw the ruins and destruction all around me. I couldn’t shake the thought of how unfair it was that I had a home to go to, unlike the thousands of families whose entire lives were suddenly reduced to rubble. This feeling stayed with me so much that I had to return to Nepal three weeks later to try and help with the relief efforts, and my family did try to stop me. But it was a calling that I felt that I needed to be there.

Disasters of such magnitude cause irreparable damage to the lives of those who already have so little, and for generations after. Many were homeless—were left homeless without means to rebuild or keep their families safe. What I witnessed in Nepal made me realize that crises like this expose deep, pre-existing inequalities. Those living in poverty, especially women and girls, bear the brunt of it. A world that is already unfair becomes even more unfair.

My experience in Nepal inspired me to leverage the platform I was given through my work in film and use it to help others. I wanted to shine a light on the inequalities around the world, particularly how disproportionately they impact women and girls. That’s one of the reasons why I became a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP.

I was—I am determined to use my voice to advocate for gender equality globally. The issue of gender equality is very personal to me. As an actor in Hollywood who is female, Asian, and now in my early sixties—oh, thirties. Did I say 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.

As a society, we are far from where we need to be when it comes to gender equality. Much like the film industry, gender bias continues to hold women back. According to the Gender Social Norms Index released by UNDP, almost 90 percent of the world’s population is still biased against women. A staggering 2.4 billion working-age women live in countries that do not grant them the same rights as men. This inequity is ingrained in the fabric of our society at all levels, from our lives at home, to our economy, to our governments. Because of social norms, women around the world shoulder the bulk of unpaid care work, such as childcare, cooking, cleaning, which are viewed as female responsibilities. Caring for our families and households is an essential part of being human, and it’s the backbone of our economies. But the uneven distribution of it means that women miss out on opportunities for stable, paid employment, and are blocked from equal participation in economies that depend on their free labor.

Progress to ensure women’s full and equal economic participation is alarmingly slow. At the current pace, it will take three hundred years to achieve full gender equality. Sorry, but I’m really too impatient for that.

Here’s the thing. When women earn more, everyone wins. That’s because global wealth would potentially increase by 172 trillion [dollars] if women had the same lifetime earnings as men, according to the World Bank. But instead of benefiting women, many countries’ fiscal policies push them deeper into poverty. We are only hurting ourselves. To state the obvious, government policies have a direct impact on women’s lives. This is why UNDP launched a new campaign to advocate for building gender-equal economies, and is working with countries to transform their systems and policies to advance true gender equality in all aspects of life and society.

We have a long road ahead, achieving full gender parity, but it all begins with us here and now.

The film industry I’ve spent a lifetime working in is notorious for unequal pay for male and female actors. In many corners, gender-based discrimination runs rampant. Throughout my career, I have been typecast, stereotyped, put in boxes, and faced a lot of rejection. But I have fought against it all, with varying degrees of success. But time and time again, I refused to accept an unfair world. Today, I am living proof that change is possible.

So let’s not let anyone tell us that our goals are too ambitious, or that we will never achieve them. 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. And it can’t take three hundred years.

So thank you all for listening to me, and have a wonderful night. Thank you.

ANNOUNCER: Please welcome Atlantic Council Executive Vice Chair Adrienne Arsht.

ADRIENNE ARSHT: Congratulations again to Michelle Yeoh. I want to take a moment of personal privilege to mention someone who just spoke and who inspires me every day, Cynthia Erivo. And it’s not just her nails. Cynthia is one of the most talented and extraordinary individuals I know. Specifically, I’m thinking of her stirring portrayal of Harriet Tubman in the title role in the movie Harriet Tubman, and her Oscar-nominated song that she wrote for the movie, entitled, “Stand Up.”

I’m going to read you the lyrics, not sing them. It goes this way: “I’m gonna stand up, take my people with me. Together we are going to a brand-new home far across the river. Do you hear freedom calling?” It’s so very powerful. She too is a rock star. And, as was mentioned, she’ll play Elphaba in the upcoming film Wicked. Cynthia, you told me so many times that when you grow up you wanted to be me. Well, tonight I say I want to be you.

Again, congratulations to all our honorees this evening. And a huge thanks to all who presented and took part in this evening. I’d also like to thank America’s Own and the American Pops Orchestra, led by Luke Frazier. And now, speaking of music, to close out tonight’s program you’re in for a real treat. As we gather to celebrate individuals who understand the importance of democracy, and in honor of the seventy-fifth anniversary of NATO, this song couldn’t be more appropriate. As I bring the performers on, she was recently featured in PBS’s Black Broadway, and he is currently gearing up to star in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Turandot. Please welcome Brittany Chanell Johnson and Soloman Howard.

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