Ralston: Unity Underlies NATO's Strength
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
MONS, Belgium, May. 4, 2000 Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston now wears two hats and one tops the other.
The former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ralston postponed retirement plans when Defense Secretary William S. Cohen asked him to take the lead in Europe.
The veteran combat pilot succeeded Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark May 2 as commander, U.S. European Command, in Stuttgart-Vaihingen, Germany. The next day, he donned his second hat here as supreme allied commander Europe.
A command pilot with more than 2,500 flying hours, including 147 combat missions over Laos and North Vietnam, Ralston has served his country nearly 35 years. He has commanded at squadron, wing, numbered air force and major command level and held a variety of staff and management positions at every level of the Air Force.
About 700 U.S. and European officials welcomed Ralston and his wife, Dede, and bid farewell to Clark and his wife, Gert, at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. Guests included Cohen and Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
During the ceremony, SHAPE's colors passed from outgoing commander Clark to NATO Secretary-General George Robertson and then to Ralston.
"Your new post will be a very challenging one, as I'm sure Gen. Clark has told you," Robertson told Ralston. "I'm also sure he's told you how rewarding it will be."
In Ralston's first address as SACEUR, he acknowledged that the alliance is made up of 19 sovereign members dedicated to common objectives, and emphasized the unity at NATO's heart. "It is in unity that we find might -- unity of principle, unity of purpose, unity of effort," he said.
"NATO's chief strength is not in its military forces but in the unified spirit of a free European people. … By its very unity, NATO has been a catalyst for peace, stability, freedom and prosperity."
Ralston pledged to nurture and strengthen this spirit of unity so the 19 allies can build upon NATO's collective success. He promised to provide the highest quality military advice to the North Atlantic Council.
Together, he said, NATO nations' militaries provide greater combat power than each nation could hope to have individually. "If our alliance needs to employ that combat power, we must be ready," he said. "You have my enduring commitment to our combined combat capability, to the readiness of our forces, and to a higher quality of life for you and your families."
The Ralstons and several family members traveled to Europe with Cohen May 1. The two defense leaders went their separate ways upon arrival in Munich. Ralston proceeded to Stuttgart, and Cohen visited troops in Kosovo before attending both change of command ceremonies.
En route to Europe, Ralston told reporters his top priorities as SACEUR will be enhancing NATO relations with Russia and the European Union.
"Perhaps we have a window of opportunity now with President (Vladimir) Putin taking over," he said. "I look forward to meeting with my Russian military counterparts and seeing what we can do to build a better foundation for our relations."
He said he intends to focus on developing NATO's relationship with the 15-nation European Union, whose European Security Defense Identity would create a military coalition for purely European contingencies. EU's membership includes 11 of NATO's 19 members -- the United States is not in the EU.
"What our procedures are going to be and how we do that, I think, are very important to the future of the alliance," Ralston said.
Along with his dual hats, the general takes on peacekeeping operations in Kosovo and Bosnia. Overall, he said, he is extremely pleased with what the NATO-led military men and women are doing in the Balkans.
"I'm looking at how I can help the military on the ground do their job. How can we give them what they need?" Ralston said he planned to go to Kosovo soon to visit the various sectors and confer with commanders.
On Bosnia, the general highlighted progress made on the military side in the last four years. This includes cutting NATO forces from 60,000 to 20,000, and cutting the number of Americans from 20,000 to 5,000, he said. He first visited Bosnia in June 1996, six months after NATO went in. Since then, he said, he's ventured back every few months "to take a look."
"Anyone who goes to Sarajevo today can't help but be impressed by how far things have come in Bosnia," he said. "You see how people are having a much more normal life today than what they had four years ago."
Under his EUCOM hat, Ralston said quality of life in the command is a priority concern. He said his mission is to make the best case possible to Congress that U.S. service members and families in Europe need upgrades in the infrastructure and facilities.