June 27, 2021, Villa Taverna, Rome, Italy
MR SMITHAM: (In progress) to the team. Is that okay?
More seriously, let me just, on behalf of the Tri-Mission and my colleagues Jenny and Patrick, welcome you, Mr. Secretary, to Rome. A lot of what we do in diplomacy is build relationships, so let me just make a couple of introductions. Mr. Secretary, this is your Tri-Mission Italy team. It’s been a fantastic team that works every day to promote our interests and our joint interests with our partners here in Italy.
I’ve got to highlight that over the past 16 months, this has been more of a struggle than it had been before. It’s hard to imagine on a beautiful sunny afternoon like this in Rome, what we’ve been going through for the past 16 months. But on February 23rd we got a call about COVID, weren’t sure exactly what it was. It was in the north of the country and we had to really react quickly to make sure that this community stayed safe and secure. And this is the team that kept our community safe and secure throughout the many months when you couldn’t leave your house, couldn’t leave your neighborhood, then couldn’t leave your region, and now Italy is a bit open, or more open, and so we’re able to get out and about. This is the team that built resilience among our community. Our CLO has been fantastic in doing that as well as our medical staff and the rest of our management team.
Team, this is Secretary Blinken. I don’t think he needs much of an introduction as he’s had a distinguished career in public service and in the private sector for the past 30 years. But let me just highlight a couple of things. We just had a very substantive meeting with the foreign minister of Italy and I understand with some UN officials as well. But let me just highlight something else. We’ve talked a little bit about COVID here, and I want to let you know that because of the Secretary and because of his tireless advocacy in Washington, he’s been making sure that we have the tools to keep our community safe and secure. And the vaccines arrived here a couple of months ago due to the pressure that the Secretary and his team placed on other officials in Washington to make sure that our diplomatic communities around the world had access to the same vaccines that our team back in Washington had access to. And I think for that, Mr. Secretary, we all owe you a big thanks and want to congratulate you and your team for bringing that about for our entire Foreign Service and broader diplomatic community.
Without further ado, let me introduce Antony Blinken, the 71st Secretary of State of the United States of America. Mr. Blinken. (Applause.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, thank you all very, very much, and Tom, thank you not just for your very kind words but thank you for your remarkable leadership here, and Jenny and Patrick, to both of you as well. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it, we appreciate it, the President appreciates it. And I have to say, by the way, I’ve had an opportunity now getting out and about a little bit to talk to the teams at our missions in a number of places around the world. I think you’re winning the prize for best setting today, so thank you. (Laughter.) And it’s really great to see everyone here. As I’ve been saying, we’ve been – we were distant for a long time. It’s been – it still is a little bit mask to mask; we’re getting to face to face. But we’re getting there.
And I have to say, picking up where Tom left off, I know how challenging this last year and a half has been on a personal level for so many of you as well, of course, as on a professional level. On a personal level, I know that there are a number of you here who have been directly affected by COVID, who’ve had a loss, family, friend, and that in and of itself is a profoundly life-changing thing. But then to carry on the mission in the midst of that, and not only carry it on but do it so well and to come together as a community, I can’t tell you how grateful I am and we are for that. Because being able to do the job in the midst of COVID – hats off for that.
Italy in particular, as Tom noted, was hit hard by multiple waves. I think the fact that you were able to keep going and do it so well speaks volumes. And yeah, we did have a challenge at the department. When I was talking to our colleagues in the previous administration, there was – as we were doing the transition, there was the hope that the department would get 300,000 vaccines last December. We got 13,000. So we’ve been playing catchup ever since, and one of the things that I am very pleased with is the fact that thanks to a remarkable team back in Washington, but also extraordinary medical units, including here, we’ve been able to do that. And by the way, as we were finally getting vaccines in, we were pushing 85 percent of what we got out to our missions in the field. That was the number one priority. And my number one priority as Secretary of State is to do what I can to look out for your safety, for your health, and for your wellbeing because you’re putting yourselves on the line for our country every single day, and that’s the least that we owe you.
Let me say, too, more broadly, I can’t think of a more important time for you to be doing what you’re doing on behalf of our country. And it really comes down to this, and COVID is a great example but there are many, many more. Virtually all of the big issues that we have to contend with that are actually having an impact on the lives of our fellow citizens back home as well as people around the world – whether it’s COVID, whether it’s climate, whether it’s the disruptive impact of all these new technologies that are shaping our lives – we know that not a single one can be effectively dealt with by any one country acting alone, even the United States with all of our resources and power. There is a greater premium than ever before, at least in the time I’ve been working on this, to cooperate, to find ways to work with other countries through international institutions, if we’re going to get the job done. And the hard reality is there is no wall high enough or strong enough to keep these problems at bay. We have to find ways to cooperate, and that’s exactly where all of you come in.
Every single day, you are on the front lines of building, strengthening, making even better our cooperation with one of our most critical partners and friends, Italy. And we’re seeing the results of that every single day. Just in what we’re doing here on these couple of days, between the bilateral work that we’re doing and, as Tom said, we had a terrific lunch with Foreign Minister Di Maio where we covered a lot of ground. I’m really glad that there were multiple courses because we had so much to cover that if we had gotten – just had two courses, we never would have gotten through the agenda. So I’m a little worried about dinner, but that’s another matter. (Laughter.)
And then you see the work that Italy is doing, its own leadership, with our support, bringing together the counter-ISIS coalition here, its leadership of the G20, work on Syria, on so many other things. This is a demonstration in practice of this cooperation actually producing results, because ultimately that’s what it’s all about. We have to demonstrate through this work that we’re doing, the work that you’re doing, that our country, our democracy can deliver real results for our people and hopefully for people around the world. And it does not happen without you. So I really mostly wanted this opportunity to say thank you for everything you’re doing to help lead our diplomacy and to demonstrate that we can actually produce results.
There are a lot of people I actually want to give a quick shout-out to because so many of you have really stepped up, but there are a few that, besides Tom for his incredible leadership during this pandemic, I want to give a shout-out to a few folks.
The management section at Tri-Mission, especially management officer Ken Meyer, who I think – is he here? Is Ken here somewhere? Let’s see. Well, if he’s not here, I just want to say thank you for leading the COVID Tri-Mission Task Force. Again, the work that was done here to try to deal with, contend with, and manage COVID is remarkable. The mission health unit – I mentioned this a minute ago, and I don’t know if Rosa Tavano is here. But to Rosa, to the entire team there, the work that you did to care for everyone – to care for the staff, to keep people informed, to oversee a very successful vaccination campaign – thank you, thank you, thank you. And there goes my other thing. Thank you.
Community liaison office, Janene LeMay – I don’t know if you’re here – Eric Oakley, Linda Modinger. Keeping spirits up, a very important thing to do during COVID – I understand there were virtual happy hours. I may not report that back to Washington, but I still think that’s a very good thing. Wine tastings – virtual, but still very effective – tours, et cetera. All of this, I say it a little bit in gest, but not, because keeping the mission together and focused, keeping morale high at this incredibly difficult time, that in and of itself was a critical mission and I’m grateful to the people who took that on.
So we’re now at a point where, as you know, Italy recently lifted most of its commercial restrictions. More things are going forward in the weeks ahead. U.S. tourists are coming back on COVID-tested flights. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a single – I shouldn’t even say this, but has not been a COVID case in the Tri-Mission in a number of weeks. And I think today, hopefully, this is a little bit of a taste of what the very near future is going to look like. And I know we are all incredibly anxious to get back to a semblance of life as we knew it, but we’re getting there.
Finally, a few things I want to mention as well. Six of you have 40 years of service or more to this mission, and that is in and of itself an extraordinary thing. But I think – let me see, is our minister counselor for public affairs Beth Poisson here? Beth, are you here anywhere? Well, 40 years of service – extraordinary. Special consular services assistant Domenico Taliani, 40 years of service. Cultural affairs specialist Marzia Benini, supervisory financial assistant Maurizio Cicerchia – excuse me if I have the pronunciation wrong – motor vehicle services technician Stefano D’Amadio, administrative clerk Paolo Zuccheri. It’s hard to put into words how much your work, your collaboration, your partnership has meant, and 40 years is truly extraordinary.
I especially want to say to those of you who are part of the locally employed staff, thank you, thank you, thank you. I say this everywhere I go. I mean it profoundly. The locally employed staff are the lifeblood of our missions around the world. No one does more for the connectivity between our missions and the country that we’re serving in than this team. And to those of you who are locally employed staff, I am truly grateful.
But to everyone here, whether you work for the State Department, whether you work for I think more than 10 agencies represented at this mission, whether you are a direct hire, whether you’re locally employed staff, whether you’re one of the 33,000 servicemembers or a family member of anyone working here, for each and every one of you, your contribution is invaluable. And each and every one of you is, in the truest sense of the term, a representative of our country, of the United States and for the partnership and relationship between the United States and Italy.
Our countries are celebrating 160 years of diplomatic relations. It is genuinely one of the most important relationships we have. But again, it ultimately comes down to you, to the work that you’re doing every day. And so in this remarkably beautiful setting, grazie. Thank you. (Applause.)