Remarks by the Vice President at the Atlantic Council's 50th Anniversary Dinner
7:25 P.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. You are very gracious. (Applause.)
As my grandfather Finnegan would say -- (laughter) -- if there’s one audience in the entire world that would know that hardly anything Chuck said about me was true, it’s all of you. (Laughter.)
As you can tell -- I hope you can tell Chuck is not only -- was not only a valued colleague, he is one of my closest friends. And I always kid with him, if we had grown up in the same neighborhood, we would have hung out together our whole lives.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m honored to be invited to speak to such, and I mean this sincerely, an illustrious audience. And I understand everyone from Colin Powell to -- well, there’s just so many distinguished folks out there that I can’t see, but I’m told are here. (Laughter.)
And I’m flattered to be asked to come and help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Atlantic Council. Let me briefly acknowledge tonight’s distinguished honorees. Admiral James Stavridis is a -- is the real deal. He can tell you more about and understands the incredible, the phenomenal, the just almost unbelievable capacity of his Navy SEALs and what they did last Sunday. (Applause.)
Placido Domingo is probably the only man who could appropriately sing their praises. (Laughter.) And Muhtar Kent said he is sending them a lifetime supply of Coca-Cola. (Laughter.)
But, all kidding aside, congratulations to the honorees. I want to congratulate the Council also on its two new and very ambitious initiatives, the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and the Rafik Hariri Center on the Middle East. I know Brent is here, and I think Nazik is here as well. Congratulations, fellas. (Applause.)
And, Nazik, on a personal note, give your family my best. Your mother was so incredibly gracious to me in Beirut and your family was so open in hosting me several years ago in a time of great sorrow in your family. And I just wish everyone well.
General Jones, a good friend and a former colleague is here. I hope it’s appropriate to also acknowledge one dear friend of all of ours who is not here tonight, Ron Asmus, who passed away this last weekend. (Applause.) He passed away after a very -- he was a young man and -- a very long fight with cancer. As everyone knows here, Ron made extraordinary contributions to the transatlantic relationship, and he will be sorely missed.
Folks, I’d be remiss also if I didn’t say an extra word about the incredible events, extraordinary events of this past Sunday. As Vice President of the United States, as an American, I was in absolute awe -- awe of the capacity and dedication of the entire team, both the intelligence community, the CIA, the SEALs. It just was extraordinary.
And what was even more extraordinary was -- and I’m sure former administration officials will appreciate this more than anyone -- there was such an absolute, overwhelming desire to accomplish this mission that although for over several months we were in the process of planning it and there were are many as 16 members of Congress who were briefed on it, not a single solitary thing leaked. I find that absolutely amazing. (Applause.)
And those brave professionals who tracked and killed Osama bin Laden, it was just a -- it was actually breathtaking. It was a staggering undertaking. And there was no one else, I believe, other than an American group of military warriors who could do it. And the world is a safer place today, not only for the American people, but for all people.
I was pleased. I was pleased and, I must tell you, a little bit surprised, but pleased by the reactions that have poured in over all corners of the globe from all peoples, from the region and from every corner of the globe. At the same time, our thoughts and prayers remain with the innocent victims of terror and their loved ones both here and abroad, because we know that this triumph -- this triumph is continuing nonetheless, a continued struggle they all have, missing their loved ones who were taken out by this butcher.
And the pain still exists. And in a bizarre way, it brings a lot of it back to the surface. So they remain in our thoughts and our prayers. But I think one clear message has gone out to the world, there is no place to hide, no place you can hide when the United States decides from one administration to the next that we will, in fact, reach a goal, meet the goal, we are determined. And we will relentlessly, without any hesitation, follow on that commitment -- Democrat, Republican, it doesn’t matter.
But, look, folks, I’m here tonight to talk about the importance of the transatlantic relationship and this 50th anniversary of the Council. Five decades, the Council has enriched the public debate on both sides of the Atlantic and, not incidentally, helped forge consensus not just among the political leaders, but consensus among the elites and the populations of all our countries to deal with some of the hardest, most difficult and divisive foreign policy issues we have faced and will continue to face.
You have been relentless, relentless champions of the critically important idea that is the essence of why you exist, the idea that American leadership, side-by-side with our partners in the Atlantic community, can and will meet all the great challenges of our day. And we’ll do it together, because it’s much more difficult and sometimes not possible when we try to do it independently. And that remains -- that remains true for the future challenges we will face.
The Atlantic Council was born, as you all know, at a time of crisis in 1961, as the Wall that became the Cold War’s defining symbol was being erected. American and Soviet troops faced off across the divided city of Berlin, and a young American President, confronting the greatest challenge of his time, declared, and I quote, “We seek peace, but we shall not surrender.”
He went on to say, “the Atlantic community, as we know it, has been built in a response to challenge. Now, standing strong and prosperous after an unprecedented decade of process -- of progress, the Atlantic community will not forget either its history or the principles which gave it meaning.”
Those words are as relevant, in my view, and I suspect the view of all of you in this room today in 2011, as they were when they were spoken in 1961. America’s partners across the Atlantic remain our oldest friends, our -- and collectively our closest allies. And it’s hard to imagine -- it’s hard to imagine a single threat or opportunity that we cannot address more effectively if we do it together.
As President Obama said not too long ago, he said, “Europe is the cornerstone of our engagement with the world and a catalyst for global cooperation.” With no other region of the world does the United States share so many values, interests, capabilities, and goals. That doesn’t mean we agree on everything. God knows we’ve all attended those interminable conferences about whither NATO -- (laughter) -- God knows we’ve been declared dead so many times by the chattering class.
We obviously don’t agree on everything, even to this day. But we agree on this, we need each other. We’re stronger with each other. And we can do more for the world with each other.
Let me say it flatly, we have -- the President and I, and all of you in this room, I suspect, we have and will continue to support a strong, vibrant European Union. We believe a stronger EU means a stronger Europe. And a stronger Europe is fundamentally in the interest of the United States of America.
Everyone -- everyone -- in this room knows the facts: The EU is our largest trading partner and our trading relationship supports millions of jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.
Together, we have broadened and deepened our counterterrorism cooperation, kept 800 million citizens of the United States and the EU safe from devastating attacks since 9/11, although there have been attacks in Europe, although more remains to be done.
It’s hard to imagine how it can get done without us staying together. Together, we have put an unprecedented pressure on Iran through strong, coordinated sanctions. Together, we’ve worked to resolve political crises in South Sudan, Belarus, Burma, Yemen. And together, we’ve joined forces in response to the wave of popular uprising across the Middle East that will reverberate probably for several decades.
The work of this partnership intersects on many fronts with our leadership in NATO, the greatest military alliance in the history of mankind. We know that we had to adapt NATO to this changing world and expand it from 12 founding members to 28, as a consequence of the profound changes that have taken place in the last two decades.
My colleagues are always kidding me, because I’m always quoting Irish poets. (Laughter.) There’s a great line -- and it’s not my grandfather, it’s an Irish poet. (Laughter.) William Butler Yeats has a great line in the poem about his Ireland in 1916. It’s called, Easter Sunday, 1916, talking about the first rising in Ireland of the 20th century. There’s a line -- he said, “All has changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born.”
All has changed, changed utterly since the early ‘90s, and a terrible beauty has been born. And it will be shaped either looking ugly or beautiful in large part by the kind of cooperation, the extension of cooperation the Atlantic alliance continues to engage in.
The end of the Cold War, the end of the bipolar world, the birth of newly democratic and newly independent nations across the European continent, the emerge of transatlantic threats -- transnational threats, I should say, like nuclear proliferation and stateless terrorism. The most recent step came at Lisbon last November, when NATO adopted a new strategic concept to help meet the 21st century challenges.
President Obama and I firmly believe that there must be no distinction between old and new members of NATO. So to adapt, we began to move, and all of us moved together, on making sure that the Article 5 commitments extended to every nation in NATO not implicitly, explicitly. An attack on one is an attack on all, because all NATO members deserve the same protection.
We also updated our mission to address the modern threats like ballistic missile proliferation and cyber attacks. And we have finally settled the old debate about whether NATO should act outside of the treaty area by recognizing the alliance must be prepared to respond both within Europe and beyond Europe. That includes Afghanistan, where troops are bravely working to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat al Qaeda, and to help build up an Afghan security force so that Afghanistanis never again -- or Afghanistan never again becomes the haven for terrorists.
In Lisbon, we agreed to a transition plan to Afghani control and to start that transition this year. We agreed that in July, we will start drawing down NATO forces in Afghanistan. We agreed that by the end of 2014, Afghans will have full responsibility for security throughout their country. We also agreed on a path forward on missile defense, a system designed first and foremost to guard against threats to Europe and deployed U.S. forces. But that will ultimately, in the process, enhance and protect the American people as well.
We invited Russia to cooperate with us to develop a missile defense capability. I spent an extensive amount of time with Prime Minister Putin and with President Medvedev not but two months ago, discussing how we move forward on this. And I believe we will. We want Russia to be an integral part of the Atlantic community, a partner that shares interests with America, NATO, and all of Europe, and a key to forging an arc of stability from Western Europe to the Pacific. We have a long way to go, but it’s something worth pursuing.
We reset our relationship with Russia. In the first speech the administration made, I was asked to make it in Munich immediately after being elected. We announced at the Munich Conference back in 2009 that we were going to reset, and it’s yielded significant results. It led to a new START Treaty and to an unprecedented cooperation on counterterrorism and nuclear proliferation threats like Iran and North Korea.
Missile defense cooperation could be the next big step forward, and an active discussion is underway. Meanwhile, Europe and the United States are also embarking on a new frontier of economic ties with Russia that complements this growing strategic relationship. Toward that end, I and the President are committed and we’ve made it clear -- I’ve made it clear to Medvedev -- to President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin when I traveled to Russia in March that the United States strongly supports Russia’s accession to the WTO and that we will work with the Congress to lift Jackson-Vanik, an anachronistic situation which long ago accomplished its original objectives. It’s in our interest for them to move west. Simply put, we think better bilateral relations with Russia has been better for the world and for Europe, and particularly Eastern Europe.
At the same time we set this reset button, we made it clear that there are certain red lines. We do not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence. And it will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and to choose their own alliances. So there has not been any ambiguity on that point with our friends in Russia.
As I said at the outset, this is a world in transition. Twenty years ago, Europeans from Berlin to Vladivostok began a difficult journey to freedom, journeys that captured the imagination and inspired the whole world. Today, these nations are free -- by and large, if not totally. And they can be a shining example for Egyptians and Tunisians and others who are embarking on a similar transition in an entire swath of the world. That’s why we no longer think in terms of what we can do for countries in Eastern and Central Europe and the South Caucasus, but what can we do with them and with all of our Atlantic partners to continue this progress.
Our relationship with Europe will be essential as we move from the confrontation to cooperation with Russia, and as we navigate the transformation that’s taking place in the Middle East. That’s what we mean when we say, “Europe is the cornerstone of our engagement and a catalyst for global cooperation.”
The President’s national security strategy recognizes this reality. It says, and I quote, “The burdens of a young century cannot fall on America’s shoulders alone.” And, thus far, this year our allies have played a leading role in NATO’s newest missions to protect the Libyan people from a murderous dictator. And, as a consequence of our unity, we are joined by regional partners like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, and others with the will and the capacity to contribute, like Sweden. This is burden sharing in action, and it benefits everyone.
But burden sharing requires a sustained commitment to the alliance’s goals. We strongly believe that membership in NATO brings with it responsibilities -- a responsibility that can only be met by devoting a sufficient amount of resources to the defense of that country.
For many years, only a handful of NATO’s members have reached the defense spending target of 2 percent of GDP. So we will continue to urge our allies, even in these difficult economic times, to devote resources that today’s challenges require so that we can all -- so that we’re all capable of meeting those challenges together.
Folks, the arc of history is not very long here. NATO was formed only 60 years ago, when Europe was in chaos. In that short timeframe, together we’ve made remarkable, astonishing progress. After we crushed fascism, we dismantled communism, raised the standard of living for all of Europe, and provided for the most universal application of human rights and prosperity Europe has ever seen in its entire history.
And, in spite of this, for over three decades, as I said earlier, I’ve been attending meetings where the question is, is the alliance still relevant? Is NATO still relevant? Can the transatlantic relationship be sustained?
Well, ladies and gentlemen, the truth is the relationship remains as central to our interests -- our mutual interests in my view -- as it ever has. And this alliance continues to serve the interest of its members.
I wanted my children, if you excuse, as we say in the Senate, a point of personal reference, my children and grandchildren to understand how remarkable this progress has been and to fully understand that they had to be aware of what it was like prior to the alliance, prior to NATO in order to make sure that their generation understood why this had to continue.
So years ago when my grown sons were 15 years old each, like many of you, I took them to Europe. The first stop in the case of each of my sons in successive years was Dachau. I wanted them to see -- I wanted them to see not only the inhumanity that was visited upon mankind but how far we’ve come and the progress that was made in spite of that, that it was at that time, not more than 40 years before.
I brought my -- speaking of Finnegan -- I brought my granddaughter Finnegan Biden on one of these trips recently into Prague so I could show her -- let her see with her own eyes in the not-so-distant past how freedom triumphed over 20th century tyrannies of fascism and communism. It’s important that this generation and future generations understand how and why these accomplishments were made possible. Sacrifices and hard work and shared values was what made them possible. And ultimately, it was the recognition that together -- together -- we could change the face of the world.
Let me end where I began: The next half century of transition will be just as consequential as the last half century of the last century. Ladies and gentlemen, I think we’re going to look back, our children and grandchildren are going to look back and see how well did we navigate these incredible changes that run from the Caucasus all the way to China, from Tunisia all the way -- from Morocco all the way to Pakistan and India because the changes are going to be profound -- profound.
Advancing the lot of humanity is going to continue to depend upon in my view the solidarity of the Atlantic community. It’s going to fall to future generations and to organizations like the Atlantic Council to sustain this partnership. And once again, our children and our grandchildren will hear about why it’s not necessary, why it’s too difficult, why it requires too much effort. Well, I’m here to tell you that if they don't exercise the same degree of effort, attempt the same degree of solidarity and stay with it, the next 50 years will not be written as well as they might otherwise be.
I’m hopeful and confident that 50 years from now on your 100th anniversary, I will be your speaker. No -- (Laughter.) On the hundredth anniversary, you’ll have a speaker to testify to even greater security and prosperity that it helps to provide for all peoples.
Thank you again for allowing me to be with you, and God bless you all. And may God protect our troops. Thank you. (Applause.)
7:48 P.M. EDT