Good morning. It is a pleasure for me to be here today at Matej Bel University and to meet all of you. I’d like to begin by thanking Branislav Kováčik, Dean of the Faculty of Political Science and International Relations, and Martina Šinkovičová from the GLOBSEC Academy Center for inviting me here to speak today.
In fact, this is the first opportunity I’ve had to speak at length about the U.S.-Slovak relationship in public. I know everyone has probably been riveted by the events in the United States over the past two weeks and the President elect’s selection of his National Security Team. In moments of change it is also useful to remember the deep roots and common shared interests and values that have brought our countries together and bind us going forward. I’m very happy to share my thoughts with you today because the students of this faculty represent the next generation of transatlantic leaders in Slovakia, and so this relationship will factor very heavily into your work after you depart Matej Bel University. And I promise to leave plenty of time after my remarks to hear your thoughts and questions.
Why does Slovakia matter to the United States? Many Slovaks I meet tell me, “Viete, sme mala krajina.” Are they trying to tell me that Slovakia is not that significant? For the United States, nothing could be farther from the truth. A democratically strong, stable and prosperous Slovakia is very much in America’s interest. First of all, you are embedded in the fabric of a Europe Whole, Free and at Peace. One could even argue that Central Europe keeps the whole fabric stitched together. When Europe is threatened, we often see the first signs in this region.
And why does Europe matter so much to the United States? Because there’s virtually nothing we can accomplish globally without you. When we need help to address global concerns — which is pretty much always — Europe is our partner of first resort. Europe is the wealthiest, most capable, and globally respected partner we have. And our partnership is the most resilient on earth because it is grounded in shared values. The United States and Europe share a strong commitment to an open, rules-based international system. We are committed to the sovereign right of every country to decide its own destiny and control its own territory. We believe in human rights and the dignity of all.
This is why the United States has been a firm supporter of a strong EU that has the means and confidence to act globally. And since joining the EU and NATO in 2004 Slovakia has done much not only for itself, but for Europe. I recognize the hard work that Slovaks undertook to restructure their economy, adapt their laws, and meet the demanding requirements of EU membership. Those efforts, and the reforms undertaken by all the new members, have transformed the economy of this continent, enhanced its global stature, and opened up new avenues for deep cooperation.
On the security side, Slovakia embraced its obligations to be a security provider, not just a consumer. It provided forces for NATO peacekeeping operations in the Balkans years before its own membership. We are grateful for the Slovak soldiers who stood with us in Afghanistan and serve there until today. We are encouraged by Slovakia’s efforts to modernize its forces to make sure that they are the best possible Ally they can be, whether they are coming to the assistance of their Allies, or whether it is receiving help from Allies to safeguard Slovak sovereignty.
I’m sure that this language about interests and values echoes themes already familiar to you from your studies. But I’d urge you as well not to lose sight of the personal and historical ties that bind countries as well. These make the United States and Slovakia not only Allies and partners, but also friends. A few examples from our shared past:
During America’s Revolutionary War, a Slovak Major, Ján Ladislav Polerecký, fought alongside George Washington to win America’s independence. During the Civil War, Captain Gejza Mihalóci gathered Slovak volunteers to fight for the Union, helping to preserve our country.
In the late 19th century, hundreds of thousands of Slovaks immigrated to the United States, most coming from central and eastern Slovakia. By the early 20th century, nearly one million Slovaks and Czechs lived in the United States. They came inspired by America’s freedom and by the tremendous economic and social opportunities created by our inclusive democratic system.
Desiring these same freedoms and opportunities for their countrymen back home, Slovaks and Czechs joined forces to advocate for the creation of a free and independent Czecho-Slovak state. The Cleveland Agreement in 1915 and the Pittsburgh Agreement in 1918, both negotiated in America by the Czech and Slovak expatriate communities, laid the foundation for this state. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson heeded these calls when his Fourteen Points outlining America’s goals for a post-conflict Europe included national self-determination for peoples such as the Slovaks and Czechs. Just before the conclusion of World War I, on October 18, 1918, Tomáš Masaryk declared Czechoslovakia’s independence, and this was later ratified by the United States and other powers with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.
The strong ties between our countries persisted during the dark days of World War II. In September 1944, a team from the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS, including one of Slovak-Polish heritage, Captain Edward Baranski, landed at Sliač Airfield – just 17 kilometers from here – in a B-17 bomber filled with supplies and equipment. Their mission was to assist the Slovak National Uprising in resisting the Nazi occupation and to help downed American pilots escape to freedom. Captain Baranski and many Americans like him were captured and killed by the Nazis, sacrificing their lives for an independent Slovakia.
And in the Pacific, a Slovak citizen named Michal Strank was one of the U.S. Marines who raised the American flag over Mount Surabachi on Iwo Jima. A photo of this event is one of the most iconic images of World War II, and the moment has been immortalized with the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC.
After over 40 years of communist domination, Czechoslovakia re-emerged in 1989 as a free and democratic state. In fact, November 9 was the 27th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and last week we marked the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. Across Central Europe, citizens stood up for the right to hold free elections; they built strong, independent institutions; and fostered civil society and a vibrant media. They did the hard work of reforming their economies, stabilizing currencies, privatizing inefficient industries, opening up labor markets, and welcoming foreign investment. In short, they restored liberal democracy to the heart of the continent.
But our work continues, and today this dream of a prosperous and united Europe is under threat from a range of factors, both external and internal.
Externally, the transatlantic community is confronting a number of significant challenges. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has upended one of the fundamental understandings of post-World War II Europe – that countries would no longer attempt to conquer territory through force. Central Europeans understand the threat this represents better than most, and the countries of this region have been among the strongest supporters of Ukraine’s right to choose its own future. Together, we are working to build a democratic and prosperous Ukraine.
But we must also stand together in rejecting Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. While sanctions come with economic costs and are slow to compel change, they are a necessary response to Russia’s aggression.
We must also renew our commitment to the NATO alliance. This means increasing our investments in defense, replacing soviet-era military equipment, ensuring better coordination and interoperability between NATO forces, and reassuring our allies through an increased military presence along NATO’s eastern flank. NATO is a collective defense organization, and our commitment to Article 5 is unwavering. As President Obama said two years ago in Tallinn, “we will defend our NATO Allies, and that means every Ally.”
Turning our attentions to the south, the Islamic State and its hate-filled ideology present a real threat to our security, prosperity and values. This organization has shown time and again its desire to strike beyond the Middle East and to export its terror to all corners of the globe. That’s why today countries like Slovakia and the United States are working within a global coalition that is committed to destroying this organization and burying its ideology once and for all.
At the same time, Europe has been faced with the largest mass-migration since the end of World War II. Maintaining European unity will be key to resolving this issue. Ultimately, though, any response should focus on saving lives, providing timely humanitarian assistance, and promoting orderly and humane migration policies.
In addition, the United States and its European partners must continue to confront one of the greatest challenges our species has ever faced – global warming and climate change. The Paris Climate Agreement was a positive step, and we welcome Slovakia’s ratification of the agreement. To slow the damage to our planet, though, we will need to make a concerted effort to change the patterns and behaviors that brought us to this dangerous juncture.
Looking further East, there is greater room for cooperation in addressing China’s expansionist policy in the South China Sea and halting the growth of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
These struggles abroad are not undertaken lightly, and are done so because we have something precious we must protect and defend: the rule of law, state sovereignty, peace and security, and universal human rights, which are the values underpinning our societies.
Internally, Slovakia and other members of the transatlantic community are confronting challenges such as democratic backsliding, corruption, the rise of far-right extremism, persistent unemployment, unequal wealth distribution, and a growing lack of public trust in democratic institutions.
Corruption, in particular, is corrosive to democratic societies. Citizens expect to see corrupt individuals held criminally accountable, regardless of who they are, and there are consequences when this doesn’t happen. In Slovakia and elsewhere, we have seen frustrations with unchecked corruption and the poor delivery of social services result in a surge of support for anti-establishment politicians and extremists.
Economically, the privatization of state-owned assets has too often been used to enrich those in power at the expense of ordinary citizens. We must also admit that globalization has delivered uneven economic benefits to society. The United States is interested in working with Slovakia to build an economy that provides opportunities for all, and particularly for young Slovaks. To do this, we need to stimulate the creation of high-quality jobs through investment, innovation and entrepreneurship. Foreign investment plays a key role in this process, and so we need to focus on lowering barriers to foreign investment, building trust in the judicial system, and increasing transparency.
At the same time, we need to forcefully reject those who promote hatred and intolerance. They do not have the answers; they are part of the problem. They would rather blame society’s difficulties on outsiders – people who look different, speak a foreign language, or worship in a different way – than search for real solutions to the challenges we face. We live in a complex world, and there are no easy answers to these problems.
Of course, what makes today such an honor for me is that you have already chosen a path of responsibility and engagement: you are studying policy and international relations. I have been impressed by the current generation of Slovak diplomats that I have met. They have achieved remarkable things, negotiating their nation’s membership in NATO and the EU, working to ensure that Slovak interests were preserved and voices heard while also communicating both the constraints and opportunities of a project involving many nations. I know many of you are already engaged in extracurricular activities that support and enrich our Transatlantic values. You are, in short, already demonstrating that you have the makings of future leaders, policymakers, and diplomats.
Yet, one of the most important parts of being a leader is listening to those you lead. But sometimes the message is not what you want to hear. So, it’s important to take a closer look at the message our citizens have been sending us in recent elections. Fundamentally, people are telling us that they are frustrated with the status quo – that the current political and economic system has not sufficiently addressed their needs, and that political leaders and other elites have not understood their concerns.
While we may not always agree, we must remember that our countrymen are our primary constituency. Working for the national interest – for the public interest – is a form of service, and it is not always easy. As Samuel Adams said in the early days of my country, it requires “experienced patriots.”
And so, as the next generation of “experienced patriots,” we’ll be looking to you to strengthen the European Union and NATO, which are the cornerstones of the Transatlantic Project. This means working to create a more transparent, just and responsive government. It means combating corruption, strengthening the rule of law, and improving the judicial and prosecutorial systems. It means building a more tolerant and inclusive society. It means developing a more diversified economy that creates opportunities for all Slovaks. And it means investing in defense and modernizing your military so that Slovakia can play a greater role in the NATO alliance.
I know that you are up to the challenge, and I look forward to seeing you grow into the next generation of transatlantic leaders over the coming years. Thank you for your attention.
Ambassador Adam Sterling
Matej Bel University, Banská Bystrica