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September 20, 2022

Ambassador Donnelly’s Keynote Address at John Cabot University

Tuesday, September 20, 2022 

Keynote Address at John Cabot University’s Workshop: “Italy, the United States, and the New Transatlantic moment’


As prepared

Distinguished guests, professors, students – good afternoon!  It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with you today.

As I understand, your workshop today is called the “New Transatlantic Moment” – an apt description of the crossroads where we find ourselves, a moment in which the old-world order is at risk, and the future is unclear.

As the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, I have a slightly different vantage point on this moment.

Ambassador Donnelly giving remarks at John Cabot University


At the end the Second World War, after almost six years of bitter fighting, a devastated Europe looked to rebuild itself based on new democratic principles.  Of course, this vision was not universally shared. The continent was divided in two blocs – they had radically different ideas of what the post-war order would look like.  What emerged in the West, the modern liberal democratic order ushered in a period of peace, stability, security, cooperation, and prosperity.  But in the Eastern sphere people still lived under the heel of authoritarian regimes.

The Vatican, and in particular Pope John Paul II – now Saint Pope John Paul II – was instrumental in the end of Communism in Catholic Eastern Europe.  He was the spiritual inspiration behind its downfall and a catalyst for a peaceful revolution, especially in Poland, his home country.  The United States was unified with the Vatican in its hope for the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

And there were many other important transformations during this time:  the establishment of NATO, for one.  This transatlantic link has proved to be, over the course of its 73-year history, a force for good, a force for cooperation and consultation, and a force that promotes political stability.  NATO has enabled us, around the world, to handle crises together effectively – it is our core strategic alliance.

Ambassador Donnelly giving remarks
Ambassador Donnelly giving remarks


However today the situation is very different than it was even 25 years ago.  After the fall of the Berlin Wall liberal democracy seemed triumphant.  Countries across Europe and the world were embracing democratic systems enthusiastically.  But more recently we have seen that are many external and internal challenges to this order.

The primary diplomatic and geopolitical challenge of the moment is Russia’s war of choice with Ukraine.  Nearly seven months have passed since Russia invaded Ukraine and violated its sovereignty.  This has led to the outpouring for global support for Ukraine and condemnation of Russia.

Russia’s invasion has violated international norms and has put strain on our global partners and alliances. But, in a way it has had the opposite effect of what Russia wanted.  It has not caused the transatlantic partners to drift apart and fray, it has brought us closer together.  Just as in the past the liberal order was conceived to meet the pace of historical change, so too does it meet this moment.

President Biden, Secretary Blinken, and our embassies around the world have repeatedly reaffirmed our commitment to the people of Ukraine. Throughout the course of this crisis the United States has been committed to helping President Zelensky and his people.  To date we have provided more than $1.5 billion in humanitarian assistance to refugees, the displaced, and vulnerable populations and communities inside Ukraine and in the region to date this year.  Our assistance also covers infrastructure, shelter, sanitation, emergency health care.

Ambassador Donnelly giving remarks, Franco Pavoncello, President of John Cabot University, and Pasquale Terracciano, Director General for Public and Cultural Diplomacy, Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs


As in any war civilians are the most affected.  According to the UN, more than seven million people from Ukraine are refugees and are being hosted in more than 40 other countries, mostly in Europe.  Another seven million people within Ukraine have been displaced from their homes due to the war.  That’s a little over one third of the population who cannot go home. And according to UN estimates, 17.7 million,  nearly half of Ukraine’s population of 44 million, are in need of vital humanitarian assistance.

To meet the demands of this moment requires cooperation and a multipronged diplomacy.  This is a moment for us to rebuild and strengthen our transatlantic alliances.  And it’s a moment to nurture and foster the United States’ strong relationship with the Holy See.

Our Embassy has an excellent relationship with the Holy See… strengthened even further by the strong connection that Pope Francis and President Biden share.  In July 2022 press interview, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, equivalent of the Vatican Secretary of State, characterized our relationship as “very positive,” citing frequent engagement with our Mission.

This close connection to the Holy See allows my Mission to look for areas of tangible collaboration with the Vatican, but also to deliver effectively hard messages to work toward closer alignment.

As you know, the Holy See is unique…and so is our mission. The Holy See’s real strength is its ability to reach powerfully and poignantly around the globe.  Pope Francis and the Catholic Church has unparalleled soft power in the world.  Our mission doesn’t end at the walls of the Vatican, but extends to the global Catholic population of 1.3 billion and beyond.

How does this work?  Here is an example from this very moment in time:  the war in Ukraine.  As Ambassador, I have worked nearly nonstop on Ukraine issues since the moment I arrived in Rome.  When I presented my credentials to the Holy Father, we sat together and spoke for about 40 minutes…and the bulk of that time was spent discussing the war in Ukraine.

We have been very vocal in our disagreement with some of the statements Pope Francis has made about the nature of the crisis there, and very vocal in our support of the changing tone.  Last week in Kazakhstan the Pope said, for the first time, that supplying weapons to Ukraine is morally acceptable, and that a country under attack has the right to defend itself.  This statement was a long time coming.  I credit our strong relationship with the Vatican with helping Pope Francis understand this point of view.

And of course the Vatican does much more than simply speak.  The Holy See and faith-based organizations have worked swiftly to provide aid for those fleeing the horrors of war.  This has been one of our top priorities at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, as well.  On our side, we are very engaged with Catholic and other faith-based NGOs to help provide support to Ukrainian refugees in Italy and throughout the region.  We also work to connect NGOs with parts of our government who can provide funding and other support.

At the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, we call ourselves a global engagement post, meaning we are called upon to report on the Holy See and Church’s activities in third countries, which are often focused on the most distressed or unstable nations.  My Embassy team covers issues across the spectrum, from developments in China and the Middle East, to global COVID response, to aiding refugees, and even taking on climate change initiatives. We also work on promoting human rights, countering human trafficking, and ending the scourge of modern-day slavery.

The countries which we discuss regularly are telling of the importance of the shared diplomatic work of the United States and the Holy See.  Countries such as Syria, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, South Sudan, Nigeria, Venezuela, and China, are all on our radar.  We wish to promote peace in these countries, but also encourage strong governance, individual freedom, and religious freedom.

Our long and storied relationship with the Holy See is only getting stronger with time.  The United States and the Catholic Church share many common values:  care for others, aid to the poor and the afflicted, a recognition of human dignity, and the acknowledgement of the universal human right of people everywhere to live to the fullest of their God-given potential.  These shared ideals help us in our important work together.  I am so honored that President Biden selected me to take on this great responsibility.

And this brings us to this New Transatlantic Moment.  I believe, and I think Pope Francis would agree, that this moment is ultimately not one of rupture, but of renewal.  The conflict in Ukraine, among the myriad of other issues we face, has emboldened our resolve, strengthened our transatlantic alliances, and recommitted us to protecting liberal democracy.  This is a fascinating moment in time.  I look forward to hearing what you will make of it.

Thank you very much.