At NATO's 25th Summit in Chicago, both President Barak Obama and NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen commented on the Windy City's unique role in transatlantic relations. Based upon decades of immigration from Europe to Chicago, the city is a testament to the strong bonds that exist on both sides of the Atlantic. In the words of the NATO Secretary General, "Chicago has always been a place where Europeans and North Americans have come together. And now, we have come together to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between us."
That bond exists in millions of homes in Chicago -- and across the United States -- homes where fathers, mothers, grand-parents and others packed-up their families and brought them to America.
Leaving their home countries to pursue the "American Dream," these "Americans by Choice" -- as former Holocaust survivor-turned Member of Congress Tom Lantos termed them (himself an immigrant from Hungary) -- are often the most aware of the unique opportunities that exist in the United States. Yet at the same time, these immigrant families are still firmly rooted in their familial attachment to "the old country" -- a term I've heard my entire life.
That's because I come from one of those families.
Originally from Slovenia -- but displaced by the Nazis -- the Vlasic family left their DP camp and war-torn Europe in 1950 and -- thanks to Catholic Charities -- set sail to Ellis Island, whereupon they later settled in Chicago, as did so many families from Central and Eastern Europe. So when President Obama opined at the NATO Summit that "for generations, Chicago has welcomed immigrants from around the world, including an awful lot of our NATO allies" -- I identified with the statement immediately.
I remember interviewing former Slovenian President Milan Kucan, as part of my role on the Slobodan Milosevic prosecution team, and seeing how pleased he was about Slovenia's accession into NATO -- and of course -- how proud so many Slovenian-Americans in Chicago were about the transformation of Slovenia from a Yugoslav republic, to a vibrant Central European member of NATO and the European Union. And that pride still exists in Chicago -- as was exhibited last weekend when Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa visited the hub of the Chicago-area Slovenian-American community in Lamont.
But Prime Minister Jansa was not the only Western Balkans leader to visit a diaspora community in Chicago. Indeed, every Balkan leader I met at the NATO Summit highlighted how delighted they were to interact with Chicagoans who traced their roots to the old country. And if my favorite aunt's reaction to the Slovenian Prime Minister's visit is at all emblematic of how these diaspora communities felt - there was plenty of mutual appreciation to go around.
And herein lies an important aspect of the transatlantic relationship.
Despite the fact that NATO might be "the most successful military alliance the world has ever seen," our transatlantic bonds go far beyond combined military operations, and NATO-owned C-17 cargo planes and, as of this week, surveillance drones.
As was displayed in Chicago, our transatlantic bonds are interwoven into the very fabric of our society. For despite the pomp and circumstance of the NATO Summit, every European leader who visited a diaspora community in Chicago experienced, for a moment, a piece of home. And for every community that welcomed them, there was a touch of the past -- of the old country -- and a familiarity that cannot be adequately expressed it words.
It's perhaps not unlike meeting a long-lost cousin: you may not know each other at all -- but you know you have a bond that connects you. And it is this bond -- and this connection -- that is key to our Atlantic Alliance.
As we look towards the challenges of the future -- to any one country, they may very well be insurmountable. But fortunately, like a family, we are not forced to tackle them individually. Thankfully, due to the Atlantic Alliance and the bonds that unite us, we may work with our friends and allies to tackle some of the greatest challenges to come.
Mark V. Vlasic, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University and senior fellow at Georgetown's Institute for Law, Science & Global Security, leads the international practice at Madison Law & Strategy Group PLLC. A former World Bank official, he served on the Slobodan Milosevic and Srebrenica genocide prosecution trial teams at the U.N. war crimes tribunal and participated in NATO meetings while serving as a special assistant/White House Fellow to the Secretary of Defense.