We are delighted to provide you with a transcript of Damon M. Wilson’s acceptance speech for his Czech and Slovak Transatlantic Award, as delivered at the GLOBSEC 18 Gala Dinner.
Thank you, Ambassador Rastislav Káčer. I am humbled if slightly embarrassed by this award, and am so grateful for your introduction.
As you heard, I have had the honor of knowing Rasto and his wonderful family for many, many years. I have learned so much from him, with his clarity of vision, his commitment to values, his passion and, of course, his humor. All of which makes him the ideal Chairman of GLOBSEC, and an ideal host of all of us here in Bratislava.
Thank you, Minister Miroslav Lajčák, for your leadership. Minister Lajčák may be the only person in the world who can manage both the United Nations and a foreign ministry.
I also want to thank Robert Vass, my good friend and the extraordinary leader who has built GLOBSEC into what we see today. It’s remarkable.
And to Jagello 2000. Thank you Zbyněk Pavlačík for your tireless dedication to our alliance and the transatlantic relationship.
I’m also honored to share this stage tonight with General Petr Pavel. He will always hold a special place within our alliance as the first chairman of the NATO military committee to come from a nation once locked behind the Iron Curtain. Thank you for your service to our alliance.
In February 2005, I was serving at the National Security Council under Steve Hadley. It was the start of President George W. Bush’s second term and he was traveling here to Bratislava on his first overseas trip of that term.
I remember being struck by the incredulous Slovak press, which could not understand why a US president would bother to visit tiny Slovakia.
The president, of course, was to meet Vladimir Putin. But that came only after what was intended to be a bilateral visit to, in the president’s words, “thank you for your contributions to freedom’s cause, and to tell you that the American people appreciate your courage and value your friendship.” He continued, “You’re showing that a small nation, built on a big idea, can spread liberty throughout the world.” Indeed, we intentionally used the backdrop of Bratislava to host an event with the president to “honor those who fought freedom’s fight in their homelands.”
The point was that Slovakia inspired us. Its homegrown civil society held its own leaders accountable, course corrected to ensure this nation would join the West, and shared its lessons with those struggling for freedom whether in Serbia and Ukraine, or Tunisia and Afghanistan. You represented the power of ideas, the power of freedom.
And today, we are inspired by the vibrancy of your society again in the aftermath of the gruesome assassination of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová.
I’m proud to have played a modest role along the way.
I had the opportunity to serve as a junior official working for Ron Asmus, who received this inaugural award, and under Secretary Madeleine Albright, helping to organize the 1999 NATO 50th anniversary summit in Washington. It was there in the Mellon Auditorium, where the Washington Treaty was first signed, that we opened NATO’s doors welcoming the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary into the alliance, while Slovakia was conspicuously absent.
I then had the opportunity to serve as then-NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson’s aide, as we cajoled Slovakia to take the steps necessary to be invited into the Alliance as part of the big bang at the historic 2002 Prague Summit.
Then as an NSC official under Condoleezza Rice and Dan Fried, one of my tasks was to organize the South Lawn ceremony welcoming those seven new allies into our alliance.
At the NSC, I was proud that we expanded the visa waiver program to much of this region, and launched a solidarity initiative to support the militaries of those allies who fought with us. We supported their EU membership and extended NATO into the Western Balkans. We placed calls to Prime Minister Topolanek on the tarmac in Moscow, or to Prime Minister Dzurinda on the anniversary of the Slovak National Uprising.
That’s when I had the honor and privilege to work with Adam Sterling, who now is doing a terrific job as the US Ambassador to the Slovak Republic, and who is with us tonight. Thank you, Adam.
Since I’ve left government, to help lead the Atlantic Council, I’ve remained deeply engaged in this region, staying in touch with those of you who helped ensure your nations became our allies.
Indeed, for many us – myself included – the US relationship with your nations, our newest allies, became our special relationship, no offense to our British allies.
In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Central Europe forged this special relationship with the United States as Americans assisted formerly captive nations’ transformations first into free market democracies, then into allies in NATO and members of the European Union, and later as coalition partners in battle.
In the past decade, however, our successes in Central Europe had come to be taken for granted as –understandably – our attention shifted elsewhere. Everything became all too normal.
And without malice, transatlantic bonds receded, American engagement in the region ebbed, and then electorates, strained by economic turmoil, began to question the promise of a Europe whole and free.
Against this backdrop, a revanchist Kremlin first rejected our offer of strategic partnership, and then acted to halt the eastward democratic advance, to undermine our post-Cold War gains, and to sow mistrust within our own societies.
We are beginning to expose and beat back this dark campaign, but our work has only just begun. Take as evidence alarming public opinion data across the region.
We face great challenges.
And these challenges are not just about this region. We are in the midst of a great, global shift. At the Atlantic Council, we believe we confront an inflection point in history perhaps as important as 1815, 1918, 1945 or 1989, when outcomes were uncertain and leadership decisions had outsized importance.
We face the threat of potential major power conflict. We’re witnessing the fraying of Western democracies and the rise of autocracies. The global system and its rules based order is breaking down. The promise but also the peril of disruptive technological change confronts our societies. And all of this is against the backdrop of profound uncertainties and concerns about America’s role in the world.
So I see this award not as a recognition for past service, but as a call to action. The gains we made together were historic. Over 100 million people in this region overcame tyranny and now live securely in freedom. We cannot squander our accomplishments.
To reverse the trends which we’ve been debating throughout GLOBSEC, we must go on offense to mobilize our alliance, to develop and implement strategies to bolster a free Central Europe, and to reinvest in the people who bring to life the special ties between the US and the region. Indeed, we’re working at the Atlantic Council on a new Central Europe initiative to this end.
And it’s tough. Our own societies are in a funk – we’re witnessing populist backlashes, polarized politics, or as President Kiska put it yesterday, “unscrupulous politics.”
But let’s remember, the power of our own systems is that they keep us tethered to our people and their legitimate concerns; they are also self-correcting. That’s the essence of democracies. That’s the result of engaged citizens, vibrant civil societies, free media, and open competition. We’ll sort through this – by respecting, listening, and leading our electorates.
While in the short-term, we see so much that divides our governments – Iran, trade, climate – rhetorical flourishes from our leaders – we need to remain focused on what I view as the great, emerging global struggle: a struggle between the free world and authoritarian kleptocracies.
Too often, we don’t recognize this while our adversaries certainly do.
What unites all of our allies and key partners in the transatlantic relationship, is that we comprise the spine of the free world.
As we enter this great struggle, we must neither be condemned by – nor ignorant of – our history.
For you, Europeans, history permeates your relationships. But we have overcome much of that history to ensure that former adversaries are now allies. And we must remain so. Europeans need to remember that we together are the free world, even as we differ on big issues.
Americans, on the other hand, are all too often ignorant of history. Too many of us forget that it was American strategy in the wake of World War II and the Cold War to foster European integration as an antidote to war, war which inevitably involved us. We saw it as in our interests to be a force of integration, not division.
My strong belief is that my own nation’s own interests are best served as our values advance – a concept President Woodrow Wilson embedded in American grand strategy, helping to lead to the creation of Czechoslovakia.
These values include the rule of law at home and a rules-based international order that protects individual liberties and fosters prosperity. Therefore, my own nation’s success is not zero sum, but depends on the success of others. That has been the beauty of US global leadership.
At times, it feels as if we have lost our way. If we abandon not only our common interests, but our common values, we will wander aimlessly.
And that’s where you come in. GLOBSEC, to its credit, has anchored this year’s forum in values.
It is our job, your job, the job of GLOBSEC and Jagello 2000, to help serve as our North Stars. In democratic societies after all, offering a compelling vision for the future and a strategy to get there is not something only governments can do. For our societies to work, we all have to play our role.
Ideas do matter. The idea of an international order helped resurrect our societies after World War II, steel our resolve during the Cold War, and expand the democratic West after the collapse of communism.
Now we face the dual struggle of making democratic capitalism work for our own people at home – bolstering the free world – so that we can protect ourselves by countering the authoritarian kleptocrats.
At the Atlantic Council, we subscribe to the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
So I accept this award on behalf of all of us here in this room, and those who are part of our community committed to ensuring the transatlantic alliance is a permanent fixture on the global stage.