Enlargement “a good investment”, Clinton tells Prague security conference

Bill Clinton and Petr Pavel

Czechia on Tuesday celebrated 25 years since its accession to NATO, on March 12, 1999. One of the main events on the anniversary was the conference Our Security Cannot Be Taken for Granted with speakers including Bill Clinton, who was US president when the Czechs joined the alliance.

“History will record March 12, 1999 as the day the people of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland strode through NATO’s open door and assumed their rightful place on NATO’s councils.To them I say that President Clinton’s pledge is now fulfilled: Never again will your fates be tossed around like poker chips on a bargaining table.”

Madeleine Albright with Bill Clinton  (left) and Al Gore | Photo: Ralph Alswang,  U. S. National Archives and Records Administration,  Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

These words were delivered exactly 25 years ago by the Prague-born US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright.

She was referred to several times on Tuesday at a conference entitled Our Security Cannot Be Taken for Granted that took place at Prague Castle’s Spanish Hall.

The special guests included George Robertson, a former secretary general of NATO.

He told the invited guests that when the Czechs, Poles and Hungarians joined the alliance in March 1999 one “miserable chapter” of the Cold War had ended.

“The tyranny of the Soviet Union and its proxies had finally ended. We celebrated, and maybe we celebrated too soon. Because the new, post-Cold War chapter, which promised so much to a continent that had been two world wars and then a Soviet confrontation, which trapped so many people and so many nations behind the walls and fences of communism… that hope-filled chapter was all too brief.”

Bill Clinton and Petr Pavel | Photo: René Volfík,  iROZHLAS.cz

Lord Robertson said that period of history had come to an end with Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Moscow’s aggression was also referred to by the Czech foreign minister, Jan Lipavský.

“Czechia is part of a strong security system that protects us from, among other things, a rebirth of Russia’s imperialism. The alliance, which this year is itself marking 75 years of existence, has never ceased adapting to new security threats.”

The main guest at Tuesday’s conference was Bill Clinton, who was American president when the Czechs joined NATO. He said some in the US had been sceptical about enlargement in the early 1990s – but it had been the right move.

“I think that it’s been a good investment. It was a good sensible risk and it has immensely strengthened NATO. And the motto of this conference is as true today as it was then, perhaps more true: You can’t ever take your security for granted. We know that we need more networks of cooperation."

Petr Pavel | Photo: René Volfík,  iROZHLAS.cz

The other keynote speaker was the Czech president, Petr Pavel. He told the assembled that European countries would have to get used to investing more on defence in future.

“Europe has to be able to take far more responsibility for its security. Not with its back toward the US, but exactly the opposite. In order for us to be reliable allies, capable of taking on a lot of work ourselves.”

Also on Tuesday, President Pavel presented Mr. Clinton with the Order of T.G. Masaryk, first class, for promoting democracy, stability and security in Central and Eastern Europe.