Tonight, we mark the 247th anniversary of the independence of the United States of America. We planned a public celebration themed around the 1980s, and many of us, like me, are dressed in 1980s fashion. Unfortunately, terrible thunderstorms in Sarajevo forced us to cancel our party, but that doesn’t mean we won’t celebrate tonight. I want to share with you what I was going to say to our guests tonight.
The events surrounding America’s fight for freedom are dear to me, not just because I am a proud American but because I am a huge history buff. That includes reading and learning as much as I can about your history – the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But my original love was my own country’s history: our fight for independence, our Civil War and the end of slavery, and the emergence of the United States in the last century as a world leader.
If there is one decade in America’s history that I can understand without research, without libraries, without Wikipedia, it is the 1980s. In many respects, the decade remains my cultural reference point. Just ask anyone who works here at the Embassy. Rarely do staff meetings go by without my quoting an 80s movie to illustrate a point. I have a copy of the greatest American high school movie ever made, The Breakfast Club, in my office… on VHS. All of this is to say that you have me to thank (or criticize) for the theme of our party this year.
I came of age in the 1980s, and the cultural, social, and political developments of the decade had a tremendous impact on me, just like they did on the entire world. The 80s laid the foundations for the consumerism that we now know and live. It was the MTV decade, with a single trailblazing TV station giving rise to American megastars like Madonna, Prince, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson. CNN, the world’s first round-the-clock news network, was born in the 80s.
In 1980s America, personal computers exploded in popularity, video games invaded our homes, and the Internet was born, ushering in an unprecedented revolution in information management and communication. Any parent here tonight knows just how much the microchip revolution of the 80s changed how young people spend their free time. All of this was accompanied in the United States by an unprecedented period of economic growth and prosperity.
By the close of the decade, there was reason for great optimism in America and the world. Communism collapsed, the Iron Curtain fell, the Berlin Wall came down, and we saw democracy and free market economics spreading, not just in Eastern Europe but in Latin America and elsewhere. Some christened this moment, The End of History. More than three decades later, we know we underestimated the challenges that would follow the end of the Cold War.
While the United States and much of Europe were exiting the 80s on a high note, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina were facing a very different and a much darker reality – one that many in America and the West did not want to see. We did not react decisively when ethnonationalist rhetoric reached dangerous levels in the Balkans. And when war came, when this city was besieged, when your horror was broadcast into our living rooms, through the same CNN born in the 80s, we did not immediately answer your calls. We hesitated… for too long. With time though, we did act. It is a tragedy that it was too late to save thousands of lives, including the victims of the Srebrenica genocide. But when we came, we did so decisively.
The Dayton Peace Agreement, which the United States brokered, ended the 1992-1995 war. It was not and is not a perfect agreement. Today, Dayton is subject to second-guessing, deliberate misinterpretation, and is blamed for the country’s persistent ethnic divisions. The latter mistakes cause and effect, but it is true that the political leaders of this country squandered the promise of that peace. They have chosen to perpetuate and reinforce this country’s divisions. Nonetheless, the Dayton Peace Agreement stopped the bloodshed and saved lives. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a fact, and the alternative, more death and destruction, was and is too horrible to contemplate.
The work of defending peace and democracy, the work of building prosperity, and the work of healing are never ending. To paraphrase, President Ronald Reagan, these are generational struggles. The challenges to the world we hoped would emerge after the Cold War at the end of the 1980s are painfully visible today – from Russia’s vicious aggression in Ukraine to the rise of illiberal, anti-democratic political movements across the West.
In the same way, the challenges today to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and multiethnic character are impossible to deny. From election irregularities and corruption to warmongering and genocide denial to the actions of the RSNA on June 26, the tension is clear, and for many citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the similarities to this country’s pre-war history are unnerving. But one thing is different. The United States is here.
After the 1992-1995 war, the United States quickly planted roots in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We became your top bilateral development partner, and in time, your top military partner. Today, no other country can match our sustained commitment to BiH, to its institutions, to its organizations, to its youth, and to its future inside the Euro-Atlantic community of nations.
The team of Americans and their BiH colleagues hosting you today works tirelessly every day to help the people of this country realize your aspirations for a peaceful, democratic, prosperous, and secure Bosnia and Herzegovina in which votes are counted as cast, hard work is rewarded, politicians answer to citizens and to the law, and businesses can thrive.
Our commitment to this future, our willingness to speak out forcefully for it when others challenge it, and our understanding that progress is made korak po korak – not in one giant, irresponsible, utopian leap that ignores reality – does not always sit well with some of the country’s political actors. This is particularly true when our commitment to a peaceful, democratic, and secure future clashes with their narrow political interests. But the United States’ commitment to Bosnia and Herzegovina is not to a specific political leader or party, it is to the people of this country. That has not changed, and it will not change.
With that in mind, I invite all of you all to raise a glass to the enduring friendship between our people, and to the hard, difficult but critical work we do together every day to secure Bosnia and Herzegovina’s rightful place in the Euro-Atlantic community of nations. The United States is here with you, Bosnia and Herzegovina, now and always. Thank you and Cheers!