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Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs
The world is at a crossroads, and it's up to the future generations of leaders to take responsibility, President Barack Obama today told 300 students and young professionals from about 50 countries gathered in Strasbourg, France, for the NATO Youth Summit conference being held in conjunction with the alliance's annual summit.
"We find ourselves at a crossroads, ... all of us, for we've arrived at a moment where each nation and every citizen must choose, at last, how we respond to a world that has grown smaller and more connected than at any time in its existence," Obama said.
"But it's also a tremendous responsibility, because it is you who must ultimately decide what we do with this incredible moment in history," he added.
In remarks ahead of the NATO summit today, Obama said the forces that have brought the world closer together have had both good and bad repercussions.
"The same forces that have brought us closer together have also given rise to new dangers that threaten to tear our world apart, dangers that cannot be contained by the nearest border or the furthest ocean," he said.
Outlining some of the 21st century threats the international community faces, Obama cited the spread of nuclear weapons and the theft of nuclear material, which has the potential to lead "to the extermination of any city on the planet."
Describing the global reach of terrorism, the president pointed to attacks on both U.S. and British soil that were hatched domestically and abroad.
"The terrorists who struck in London and New York plotted in distant caves and simple apartments much closer to your home," he said. As a result, every country in the international community has a share in responsibility, he added.
"Every nation bears responsibility for what lies ahead, especially now," Obama said. "For whether it's the recession or climate change or terrorism or drug trafficking, poverty or the proliferation of nuclear weapons, we have learned that, without a doubt, there's no corner of the globe that can wall itself off from the threats of the 21st century.
"The one way forward -- the only way forward -- is through a common and persistent effort to combat fear and want wherever they exist," he continued. "That is the challenge of our time, and we cannot fail to meet it together."
Obama reached into the history of NATO, one day before the military alliance celebrates its 60th birthday. Without firing a single shot, he said, the alliance prevented the Iron Curtain from descending on the free nations of Western Europe, and led to the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the end of the communist threat.
"Two decades later, with 28 member nations that stretch from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, NATO remains the strongest alliance that the world has ever known," he said, praising the addition this week of Albania and Croatia, and France's recent pledge to deepen its commitment.
Speaking about the alliance's mission in Afghanistan, Obama praised the contributions made by NATO allies to an operation that he characterized as "indispensable to our common security."
"Now I understand that this war has been long. Our allies have already contributed greatly to this endeavor," he said. "You've sent your sons and daughters to fight alongside ours, and we honor and respect their service and sacrifice."
Obama said there's no decision more difficult, and no duty more painful, than signing a letter to the family of somebody who's died in a war. As a result, he understands doubts among Americans and Europeans about NATO's first overseas mission.
"But know this: The United States of America did not choose to fight a war in Afghanistan," he said. "We were attacked by an al-Qaeda network that killed thousands on American soil, including French and Germans. Along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, those terrorists are still plotting today. And if there is another al-Qaeda attack, it is just as likely, if not more, that it will be here in Europe, in a European city."
Obama said he has requested more civilian and military assistance from NATO allies to help root out terrorists who pose a threat to international security.
"This is a mission that tests whether nations can come together in common purpose on behalf of our common security. That's what we did together in the 20th century," he said. "And now we need an alliance that is even stronger than when it brought down a mighty wall in Berlin.
"That's why we applaud France's decision to expand and deepen its participation in NATO, just as we support a strong European defense," the president continued. "That's why we welcome Croatia and Albania into the fold. And that is why we must ensure that NATO is equipped and capable of facing down the threats and challenges of this new age."
The president implored the young people into action, cautioning that contentment with the successes of the last century will not help defend against modern threats.
"This is our generation. This is our time," he said. "And I am confident that we can meet any challenge, as long as we are together."
Young people, by virtue of being unburdened by the biases or prejudices of the past, have a unique privilege and responsibility today, Obama said.
"Each time we find ourselves at a crossroads, paralyzed by worn debates and stale thinking, the old ways of doing things, a new generation rises up and shows the way forward," he said.