Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
U.S. Embassy Iceland
MR KAMIAN: Colleagues, good afternoon. Thank you very much for coming out today. It’s an honor and a privilege to welcome Secretary of State Blinken and his delegation to the embassy.
I first met the Secretary in 2015, when he visited the Operations Center not too long after becoming deputy secretary of state. What struck me about the Secretary was not his interest in the work of the Operations Center. Trust me, he was pretty darn interested in the work. But what struck me most was his interest in the people who worked there – our backgrounds, our motivations for joining the Department, and how we believed our jobs contributed to advancing American foreign policy. It’s inspiring to work for a Secretary who takes the time to get to know his people, who appreciates our expertise, and who values our contributions.
Mr. Secretary, you have a special embassy here in Reykjavik. The American direct hires, the locally employed staff, and the eligible family members may be few in numbers, but what this team might lack in size they far make up for it in skill, talent, and commitment – a commitment to representing America and supporting you and the President as you work to revitalize relations with friends and allies like Iceland to advance our shared interests.
On behalf of the entire mission, Mr. Secretary, welcome to the embassy. Thank you for making the time to meet with us, and thank you for bringing diplomacy back and here to Iceland. Mr. Secretary, the floor is yours. (Applause.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you both for that introduction, but especially for your leadership of this mission. It is greatly appreciated, greatly recognized, and we had a terrific day today, which I’m sure you’ll hear more about in the days to follow. And it is wonderful to be here in Reykjavik. This is, I have to say, my first time here, but a place that I’ve long longed to visit. Shorter than it should be, although we have the Arctic Council as well to look forward to tomorrow. But I am extremely pleased to be here, and especially to be with all of you.
As you all know, President Biden has said that we will lead with our diplomacy, especially when we’re confronting big challenges that we see around the world that, as big as they are, they have an impact on all our fellow citizens back home. And to do that effectively, it really starts with strengthening, revitalizing, energizing our alliances and partnerships, as well as working through these multilateral organizations.
And I’ve been saying this for a while, but it’s important, I think, for us to recognize why. And I know you all know this very, very well. But when we’re thinking about any of the big challenges that we’ve got ahead of us and that are actually having an impact on the lives of all of our fellow citizens – whether it’s the pandemic, and I’ll say a little bit more about that in a few minutes; whether it’s climate change, and this is certainly a place to be talking about climate change, for good reasons; or whether it is the disruptive impact of new technologies – not a single one of those challenges, and so many more that I could mention, can be solved by any one country acting alone, including us, including the United States. And there is no wall high enough or wide enough to deal with these challenges effectively.
So we have to find ways to cooperate more, collaborate more, coordinate more. And that’s exactly where our department comes in, and where you come in. The work of diplomacy, I think, and building that kind of cooperation has never been more important.
And it’s also why I’m here this week representing the United States at the Arctic Council. This is another multilateral institution that actually is focused on problems that – and opportunities, I think, that are going to have a big impact going forward. We’ve got a deep stake as an Arctic nation, of course, in ensuring the region remains peaceful and cooperative. So much good can be done working with our partners on science, on climate, on sustainable development, on helping indigenous populations. And of course, we have a particular stake in tackling the climate crisis, which poses not only a threat to us but to the entire planet.
But the bottom line is in order to do any of this, we have to start with that old saying: 90 percent of life is showing up. So we need to show up. We need to be engaged. We need to be leading with our diplomacy.
I’m especially grateful to all of you at this mission and your colleagues who are not here today for really working methodically to strengthen the bilateral relationship with Iceland across an incredibly broad range of issues – reducing climate emissions, empowering local innovators – you’ve done that through the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs program, to cite just one example – and initiatives, among others, that you managed to keep going during the pandemic.
It shows that even vital and enduring partnerships like the one we have with Iceland, going back together first as the country that first recognized Iceland, and then founding partners in NATO. But even with something that long and enduring, the partnerships can always be strengthened, can always be deepened. And that’s exactly what you’ve been working on.
I also want to recognize the incredible effort that went into opening the new facility, new embassy in November. That’s a huge lift at any time; I have some idea of what a huge lift – an even huger lift – it was to pull it off during the pandemic. Months of careful planning into ensuring the health and safety of everyone involved, and I know that it paid off. As I understand it, there was not a single instance of community transmission during the move, no days of lost productivity either.
So a couple shout-outs. One, first of all, to GSO Will Styron. I don’t know if Will is here. Yeah. (Applause.) Also to Gudmundur Ottosson. Excuse me for getting the pronunciation of the name wrong. Gudmundur, are you here somewhere? (Applause.) And Scott Dargus, where are you? You here, Scott? Scott. (Applause.) Thank you (inaudible) for shepherding this effort and to everyone who pitched in, and this is a remarkable facility that I’ve gotten at least a little glimpse of.
I’ve done a few meet and greets now that we’re on the road and traveling, getting a chance to talk to our teams in different embassies, and one constant is profound thanks to the medical staff, to the medical team for looking out for the health of all of us, all of you, during the pandemic. And I was amazed to learn that because Reykjavik doesn’t have a health unit, your management and regional security teams also managed the logistics for the vaccine clinic. So talk about taking on double duty and doing something so critical – that’s remarkable. That involved clearing vaccines, ensuring proper storage, managing the rollout on vaccine days, all of which you did without wasting a single dose of the vaccine.
Now, as I understand it, no one on the team had ever done anything quite like that before. But asked to step up, you did, and there’s nothing more important than keeping all of our people safe and healthy. Thank you, thank you, thank you for doing that. It’s (inaudible). (Applause.)
So I say all of this in part because we – there are words that we throw around a lot like “community” when we talk about our missions, when we talk about our embassies. But I think there’s rarely been a time where we’ve been able to underscore more the importance of that word during a pandemic – people coming together at a time when there is such huge strain on everyone professionally, personally, with your families. And I have some sense of how tough that’s been. But I also know that you made it through what I hope is the darkest stretch of this in part because you’ve worked as a community and you’ve worked to stay connected, even if that requires a little bit of creativity in how you do it, and also the basic principle (inaudible) one another. The locally employed staff committee and the leader of our Community Liaison Office, Sylvie Neal. Is Sylvie here? Yes. Special recognition for your efforts in keeping everyone connected, keeping everyone together. Thank you. (Applause.)
So ultimately, this community is resilient because of the people who make it up, whose lasting service and daily actions bind all of us together, bind this mission together, bind our countries together. And that includes people who’ve been here before some of our younger FSOs probably were even born. Toti Ingvarsson, where are you?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: There. (Applause.) As I understand it, you began your career here at this mission in 1976 as a courier. You supported the Reagan-Gorbachev visit in 1986. That is truly remarkable.
And let’s see, who else? Helga Magnusdottir, are you here? Helga, yes. Works in cultural affairs, helps lead the locally employed staff committee with Kris Gilsdorf, is the second generation, as I understand it, of your family to work for the United States Government. Her father was a longtime employee at Keflavik. So thank you, thank you, thank you for your service, for your family’s service.
And these bonds are really built on actions that are big but also small. For example, I was told – my team found out there was a weekly doughnut spread (inaudible), which I am really, really disappointed to miss. And I —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Ah, good. All right. Now I feel better. I was going to say you’ve got to make that up to me. (Laughter.)
So I really just want to thank you because the work that you do substantively every single day makes a difference, but the way you do it and the way you come together and the way you have not only endured but thrived during a very challenging time – that speaks volumes. It’s a credit to the department, it’s a credit to the country, and I’m really grateful for everything you’ve done. So thank you so, so much. (Applause.)
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