Remarks by Ambassador Kenneth Merten at event hosted by the Atlantic Club of Bulgaria – “Bulgaria-the United States-NATO: Allies in Two Centuries” 

April 4, 2024 

 Good afternoon and thank you to Dr. Passy and to the entire Atlantic Club team for organizing today’s event.  It is a pleasure to be here.  

President, Members of Parliament, Ministers, President Plevneliev, Ambassadors, Excellencies,   

 I don’t want to make Solomon uncomfortable in front of such a large crowd, but I want to take a moment to acknowledge what an extraordinary statesman he is and the remarkable impact he has had on Bulgaria’s transformation over the past three plus decades.  His tireless commitment to Euro-Atlantic ideals was fundamental to Bulgaria joining the European Union and the NATO Alliance, and they remain a key factor in Bulgaria’s progress on the path to innovation, growth, regional integration, and global leadership.   

 Thank you, Solomon.  It’s an honor to join you in marking not one, but three anniversaries.  75 years ago today – on April 4, 1949 – the leaders of 12 nations stood together in Washington, D.C., in the aftermath of two devastating world wars, and made a solemn pledge to defend each other and to defend our shared values and way of life.  Today, in Brussels, the leaders of now 32 nations stand together and reaffirm that solemn vow.  And in just a few months’ time, President Biden will welcome all of these leaders to Washington to celebrate 75 years of the most successful and enduring alliance in history. 

 Just last Friday, March 29, marked another major milestone – the 20th anniversary of Bulgaria’s accession to NATO.  I had the pleasure of attending the national conference organized by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense, together with the Atlantic Club and Sofia Security Forum – and was inspired by the speakers who outlined Bulgaria’s role within NATO and how it has grown over the past 20 years.     

 I know from conversations with Solomon that back in August 1990 when, as a Member of Parliament, he drafted legislation proposing Bulgaria’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and accession to NATO, his brave stand was – to put it mildly – met with great skepticism.  Well, a little bit of skepticism wasn’t going to stop Dr. Passy.  He went on to create the Atlantic Club of Bulgaria, which this year celebrates its 33rd anniversary – that’s the third milestone we’re commemorating.  The Atlantic Club organized a historic visit to NATO headquarters in November 1990 – the first such visit by an East European delegation, and they inspired the formation of dozens of other Atlantic NGOs across Central and Eastern Europe and other parts of the world.   

 Solomon and the Atlantic Club made NATO membership a national cause, and they did not stop until that vision became a reality.  They even “kidnapped” a NATO Secretary General along the way.  It was a real treat for me to see the famous Passy Trabant at the Bulgarian National Museum of Military History last fall, and to see the replica on display at NATO headquarters in Brussels.  And I’m proud to report I was not kidnapped on the ride over here today! Our security people would not have allowed that…  

 Joking aside, let us also give credit to all the Bulgarian politicians and government leaders who over the years worked diligently to advance Bulgaria’s membership in NATO, with the long-term vision for a peaceful, secure future for Bulgaria and the Bulgarian people.  It’s remarkable to think of just how far this country has come since that day in 1990 when the notion of joining NATO was merely aspirational.   

 Today, 75 years after the signing of the Washington Treaty, 33 years after the founding of the Atlantic Club, and 20 years after the country’s accession to NATO, Bulgaria has distinguished itself as a trusted, valued member of the NATO Alliance and a leader in regional security.  Bulgaria is securing NATO’s eastern flank and the strategically critical Black Sea region.   

 This nation has hosted countless joint exercises and trainings focused on boosting our shared readiness, and has contributed to key NATO missions, such as its peacekeeping mission in Kosovo and NATO’s training mission in Iraq.  Bulgaria hosts the NATO Crisis Management and Disaster Response Center of Excellence, which builds resilience and capacity to adapt and respond to any number of potential crisis events.  And for the past two years, Bulgaria has proudly hosted a multinational battle group that brings together more than a thousand men and women in uniform from eight different countries – including the United States – and is led by our partners, the Italians. 

  This multinational force unites us in our common mission to protect our nations from external threats and to give our citizens the safe foundation upon which to build stable, prosperous lives for themselves and their families. 

 The founding purpose of NATO – defense and deterrence – is just as important and vital today as when the Alliance was first established.  Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine was a wake-up call for the world, a reminder that freedom and democracy can never be taken for granted and that the threats posed to our nations are real.   

 Don’t just take that from me, ask the 3.7 million innocent Ukrainian civilians who have been driven from their homes, in one of the largest mass human displacements in history.  Ask the mothers and fathers of the tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers who have perished while bravely defending their homeland.  Ask the roughly 55,000 Ukrainians taking refuge in Bulgaria, whose children’s schools and parks have been bombed, and who don’t know when they will be able to return to their country, or whether they will have homes left to return to when they do. 

 When you think about what’s at stake, it’s no surprise that the people of Finland and Sweden – after seven decades of being nonaligned – immediately sought to join NATO.  Precisely for that security umbrella that NATO provides.  For the security that comes with the firm Article 5 contract, which states that an attack on one will be treated as an attack on all.  Finland and Sweden made that choice.  The same choice Bulgaria made 20 years ago. 

 In our hyper-polarized world, it’s important to remind ourselves of this.  Our adversaries and certain populist or nationalist forces may do their utmost to demonize NATO and stoke irrational fears to serve their interests, but they cannot change the facts.  And the fact is that NATO is and always has been a defensive alliance.  The fact is that NATO has been the vital ingredient keeping the peace in Europe since World War II.  It is an alliance that makes us stronger together.   

 Bulgaria’s national motto for the 20th anniversary reflects precisely this sentiment; I understand there was a nationwide competition to submit slogans for Bulgaria’s 20th anniversary celebration, and the winning submission is “NATO: Because we are stronger together.”  Защото Сме По Силни Заедно.  

 I’m proud that the United States is Bulgaria’s friend, partner, and Ally in building a more secure, prosperous, democratic future.  Our 120-year bilateral relationship has never been stronger, and we see this manifested in countless ways – the more than $2 billion in two-way trade, the tens of thousands of jobs created in Bulgaria by U.S. companies, our firm and growing cooperation on energy diversification, the more than 100,000 Bulgarian students who have traveled to the United States on Summer Work Travel exchanges since the year 2000.   

 And of course, we see the great strength of our relationship reflected in our deep and wide-ranging security partnership – both through the NATO Alliance and also bilaterally.   

 The United States has delivered more than $260 million in assistance over the past six years to support Bulgaria’s military modernization; this includes the acquisition of a complete squadron of F-16 fighter jets and 183 Stryker infantry fighting vehicles.  Through our State Partnership Program, the Tennessee National Guard has been training alongside Bulgarian servicemen and women for 30 years; the more than 600 joint-training exercises and cultural engagements they’ve organized have built capabilities in myriad areas – from basic combat readiness and emergency response to military logistics, cyber, and women’s peace and security.  Our security partnership benefits not only our men and women in uniform, but also civilians.   

 In fact, over the past 12 years, the U.S. military has invested $12.2 million in 84 humanitarian assistance projects such as the renovation and construction of schools and hospitals in 28 cities and villages across Bulgaria.  Again, this is how collective security enables stability, growth, and prosperity.  I am so proud of all that our two teams have accomplished, side by side. 

 Now, anniversary events give us an opportunity to not only commemorate the past, but also to look ahead to the future.  So, before I close, let me just spend a few minutes reflecting on where we are headed, together.   

 The theme of the upcoming Washington Summit in July is “defending our future.”  Well, what does that future look like?  The NATO Alliance has keenly adapted to confront 21st century threats – from hybrid warfare, disinformation, and malicious cyber activity to climate change and disruptions in global supply chains and critical infrastructure.  When our leaders come together in Washington, they will talk about how we can prepare and train in advance for these novel threats, and also how we can respond rapidly and collectively as crisis events occur.  

 Cybersecurity is among our most pressing challenges; just scan news headlines and you will see the number of reported hacks and online security breaches is frightening.  NATO is modernizing quickly so we can strengthen our cyber security and adapt to emerging technologies.  This includes encouraging all Allies and partners to use trusted vendors and fostering cyber-capacity-building opportunities – and we were pleased to support the Ministry of Defense in launching a new cyber command center just last year. 

 Keeping in mind how interconnected our world has become, the NATO Alliance is expanding its network of partners.  We will be welcoming our Indo-Pacific Partners – specifically, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the Republic of Korea – to Washington for the Summit – the third summit in a row at which Indo-Pacific leaders will attend the NATO leaders’ meeting.  This matters because we have seen in recent years how threats that emanate from the Indo-Pacific, like North Korea’s provision of ballistic missiles for Russia’s use in Ukraine and the PRC’s support for Russia, directly affect Euro-Atlantic security. 

 Of course, as with any successful organization, you can only get out as much as you put in.  And that’s why burden sharing is so important.  At last year’s Vilnius Summit, Allied Heads of State and Government pledged an “enduring commitment to invest at least two percent of GDP annually on defense.”  We have seen a remarkable increase in defense spending over the past decade, and we are happy to note that Bulgaria is on track to meet its two percent commitment by the end of 2024, further helping this country to protect its citizens.   

 As NATO adapts, it will continue to secure the freedom and wellbeing of the nearly one billion citizens that reside across our 32 nations.  NATO has never been stronger or more unified than it is today, and Bulgaria’s continued leadership is critical to the future of the Alliance and to the future of this country.   

 When I spoke at an event last year hosted by the Atlantic Club, on the occasion of the 120th anniversary of U.S.-Bulgaria relations, I said that “the best is yet to come.”  Let me repeat that now because, the 24/7 news cycle and social networks tend to amplify the loud skeptics and drown out the pragmatic optimists.  Bulgaria has a bright future.   

 That future is one of increasing integration – and hopefully very soon, full Schengen and Eurozone membership.  That future is one of innovation and growth.  And that future is one in which the United States and Bulgaria continue to build economic opportunity and prosperity for our citizens.   

 Thank so much for your attention, and I’d be happy to take a few questions. 



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