In recent years, many experts and commentators have said that the Atlantic Alliance would crumble or become irrelevant. As a former ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), I can say from experience that such dire predictions are nothing new. As America’s current Secretary of Defense, it is clear to me that the transatlantic partnership is as relevant and essential as ever.
Consider the historic events that have taken place in the past year and the role played by the United States and Europe. NATO added seven new members – nations eager to contribute to the Alliance in powerful ways. In Afghanistan, eight million voters, 40% of them women, chose their first democratically elected President in 5,000 years. In the Palestinian Authority, a democratically elected president offers the hope of a new chance for peace. In Ukraine, ordinary citizens demonstrated the depth of their commitment to free and fair elections.
In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s former subjects braved threats and voted for the first time with ballots that offered a choice of 70 political parties, rather than only one. Across the country, voters arrived on crutches and in donkey carts, passing by posters that threatened: “You vote, you die.” What a damaging blow to the extremists, whose ideology the voters so clearly rejected.
While there have been differences over Iraq, such issues among longtime friends are not new. Consider just a few of the divisions that have come up among NATO allies over the past decades. In the 1960’s, France decided to pull out of the NATO integrated command and asked NATO forces to leave its territory. In the 1980’s there was profound disagreement and controversy over President Ronald Reagan’s decision to deploy medium-range missiles in Europe. In fact, as NATO Ambassador in the 1970’s, I had to fly back to testify against legislation in the US Congress to withdraw America’s forces from Europe in the middle of the Cold War.