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Remarks to the Atlantic Council
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen , National Building Museum, Washington, DC , Thursday, April 22, 1999

Senator [Joseph] Biden, let me say for the first time in more than 27 years that I've known you, I could have sat there and listened to you forever. [Laughter.] But I do thank you for that overly generous introduction.

I want to say how grateful I am to Senator [Bill] Roth and to Senator Biden for all that the two of you have done for American security and for the Trans-Atlantic partnership and relationship. I'm hesitant to refer to you as the equivalent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid given their chosen course of action, but I must say that perhaps there are no two finer representatives coming from the Republican and Democratic aisles who have worked together on behalf of this country than Joe Biden and Bill Roth. So I thank you very much. [Applause.]

Ladies and gentlemen, this is a very unusual position for me to be in this evening. We have so many distinguished guests as I look out and see so many friends. Dr. [John] Hamre, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, [General] Klaus Naumann [Chairman, NATO Military Committee] General [George] Joulwan. I could do down the list. But I look out into this audience and I would have to say that all of you should be given a standing ovation for what you have done and what you've contributed over the years to the security of our countries. The NATO alliance has been able to survive and to endure because of the commitment that each of you have made to this great alliance of ours. And so, tonight, I am in somewhat of an unusual situation where I'm speaking to you sort of out of order.

Somerset Maugham said that, "During dinner, one should eat wisely and not too well. But then after dinner, one should speak well but not too wisely." Regrettably, he didn't offer any advice to a speaker who is destined to speak to an audience that is waiting to delve into the entree. I will leave it to Joe Biden to be brilliant. I would like to be as brief as possible this evening.

And I came across a passage in Donald Kagan's brilliant book, The Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace. It's a quote I'd like to read to you this evening: "Mankind has progressed in enlightenment, in humanity and reason to a point where the old might be peacefully preserved and usefully absorbed into the new. The means to untold affluence is at hand. There is hope that the planet might produce a civilization of perpetual peace and progress guided by the light of exact knowledge that is rapidly being revealed to mankind. And that by the sun of science, all things will be eliminated, the secrets of the universe made known, the means to a richer and wiser world fashioned, modern ideas are triumphing everywhere. There is no doubt a new world is being made."

Now, those sentiments could be an apt description that might appear in The Washington Post or perhaps even the Wall Street Journal. It might be describing the prevailing mood of our time at the dawn of the 21st Century. But in fact, it was how one scholar described the mood in Europe at the dawn of the 20th Century.

That those hopes and the dreams, which are so alive in hearts today, were shattered by the so-called Great War, should not condemn us to an existential no exit from the past. Instead, they have to rekindle our determination to pursue our goal of promoting freedom, of peace and prosperity for those who have known suffering and deprivation and hardship under the heel and boot of tyranny.

So as we're gathering here on this historic evening and this historic summit, the eyes of the world are focused on two distant but closely connected points. On Kosovo where the battle rages for the principles that will hold sway for the 21st Century, and on Washington, where our enduring alliance is going to map its course for the future.

And I think it's unfortunate that as NATO comes together in justifiable pride, as Joe Biden has pointed out, about the 50 years of accomplishment, that we're going to hear not only words of peace from this side of the Atlantic, we're going to hear the echoes of the darkest moment in Europe's history in 50 years: the haunting sight and the sound of women and children herded onto rail cars for deportation, fathers and brothers last seen kneeling in rows, whole villages turned into ash heaps by the searing flames of hatred; suffering we thought modern man was incapable of contemplating and surely not disposed to inflicting. This latter-day Kurtz has taken us deep into the heart of darkness where we can all see the horror of it all.

But I think the current conflict also reminds us about the larger mission that NATO has pursued for the past 50 years and which we're going to pursue in the future. The defense of our collective interests, the values of the pursuit of freedom and the pursuit of a future that will rise above Europe's past, one that, as Bill Roth said, will at be at least healed and whole and free.

Indeed, that unspeakable terror in the Balkans means that our work here in the next several days is not only important, it's imperative. It's imperative. When the summit concludes, Slobodan Milosevic and those who might see him as a role model are going to know that our alliance remains united and determined to prevail in this fight. Citizens across this alliance are going to understand that NATO remains ready to defend our common security interests and our values. And most importantly, the entire world is going to know that we're building a new NATO capable of meeting the new challenges of the next century.

The future is rushing at us with astonishing velocity. It's a future that holds great promise but also great peril. We're going to have to deal with and defeat terrorists who cynically wrap their madness in the garb of the holy. We're going to have to confront the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We're going to have to confront the instability wrought by the kind of rekindled ethnic hatreds that are now so tragically on display in Kosovo. These are all harsh reminders that we face new challenges to NATO's core mission of collective defense. And it would be folly for any one of us to believe that we can remain safely tucked in our cocoons of comfortable assumptions and satisfactions.

So, we're going to develop a new strategic concept. And I won't take the time this evening because I can see that there's a hungry look in your eye. But we are going to develop a new strategic concept that will help confront these missions and these threats of the future that will deal with the kinds of situations that we're now presented with in Kosovo.

I think everybody in this room understands that freedom and opportunity and prosperity are not the legacies that have been left to us in perpetuity. They were not gained without sacrifice. They will not be preserved without purpose and suffering. And when the honor of our nations is in the balance, when freedom is ripped from others, when mechanized forces of evil and the tactics of the brutal are on the move, there can be no surrender to fear, there can be no flagging of our spirit, there can be no failure to uphold the ideals that were written and defended by our forebears.

I won't take the time this evening to delve into all the intricacies of what we are going to be doing the next three days, but I can assure you that NATO is going to emerge not only victorious in this current conflict, but we are going to be, as Joe Biden has said, stronger, more united, more determined to see to it that the kind of horror that we are now witnessing in Kosovo doesn't take place again in the future; that we are shaping our forces to become more mobile, more sustainable, more flexible and more capable of dealing with the kinds of contingencies we're likely to see in the future than ever before.

The poet Auden wrote that "all sway forward on the dangerous flood of history, which never sleeps or dies and held one moment, burns the hand." Ladies and gentlemen, twice during the 20th Century, the fires of hatred on the European continent burned the hands of our countrymen. And we resolve tonight that this past shall not be prologue. And that's what brings out pilots into the Balkan skies tonight. That's what brings us to this historic summit tonight and through the weekend. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what's going to sustain us in the challenging days ahead.

Thank you very much for your support for this great institution. [Applause.]