Recently, I asked the experts assembled at a fine Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies conference to help me better understand the scope and applicability of the neutrality provision within the Constitution of the Republic of Malta. The discussion that followed has been helpful, civil, and revealing of a nation of admirable character that, because of certain turbulent aspects in its history, shares to one degree or another in the uncertainty of the current meaning of neutrality.

In asking the question, I noted both my genuine desire to learn the best understanding of neutrality held by Malta itself, and my assumption that neutrality could not possibly mean that Malta was "neutral as to the pursuit of peace". Indeed, it is not. Malta is identified in Chapter 1 of the Constitution as "a neutral state actively pursuing peace, security and social progress among all nations".

The turn of the year now prompts me to reflect upon this inquiry. Let me begin by emphasising that this is not written from the vantage point, as it might have been casually said by earlier American administrations, of the one remaining superpower. The concept of 'superpower' is at odds with the perspective of US President Barack Obama who sees America as a nation among other nations observing the human rights of all as it pursues new economic opportunity that is also environmentally sensitive.

The superpower label is anachronistic and inapposite in the 21st century since it disregards the obligation to find common ground among the family of nations. Viewed in this way, those Maltese citizens who have suggested that the origin of the neutrality provision was simply and plainly to keep Malta clear of the disputes between superpowers of a previous century were very likely illustrating its drafters' wisdom, not indifference.

Yet, no modern nation can remain neutral in the face of extraordinary threat to the civil order. When 43 nations of the world, including nearly every member of the European Union, have focused their attention on Afghanistan as central to the struggle against terrorism, it is not unreasonable for those very same nations to ask that the effort to secure peace be borne fairly by all who depend upon it. Those who would criticise the United States for having acted too unilaterally in the past, as regrettably we sometimes have, lose credibility if they close their eyes to the very real concerns of the present. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton observed: "Believing in human rights means committing ourselves to action. When we sign up for the promise of rights that apply everywhere, to everyone the promise of rights that protect and enable human dignity, we also sign up for the hard work of making that promise a reality."

Failure to thwart al Qaeda in Afghanistan would mean not only a return of the terrorist breeding ground that spawned the 9/11 attacks but also the loss of basic human rights for Afghanistan's women and minorities, and the further destabilisation of a region with nuclear weapons. Peace in Afghanistan depends not only on the number of troops but on the capacity to produce the web of culture that is found in few provinces of the country. Reached only after the broadest form of consultation, Mr Obama's plan combines the enhanced military presence with increased humanitarian assistance.

In answer to a thoughtful question from the Maltese press, I commented upon the generosity of the Maltese people and speculated about possible forms of assistance that those representing Malta might contribute. Malta needs no foreign ambassador, certainly not this one, to know how to react in the face of genuine threat to world order. The George Cross is to my knowledge the only distinction ever given an entire nation for valour. The courage of Malta as that "island alone and unafraid in the darkened sea" of World War II, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt put it, reminds this son of an Air Force man who flew in the perilous European skies to defend freedom in his day, that the present-day needs of freedom in Afghanistan will be evaluated by the representatives of the Maltese people fairly and consistently within Malta's constitutional structure.

For years now, America has stood with Malta as an equal sovereign. The general concept of sovereignty in itself entitles Malta's national judgment to respect, whether it is decided to act in concert with all other EU nations or to lead those nations and the world independently. Geographic size does not determine the deference due sovereignty, but if it did, surely Malta would be among the first rank for its generosity in risking the lives and comfort of her own citizens for the lives and well being of the immigrant stranger in a vast and often turbulent region of the sea. The US has been privileged to assist your noble efforts by supplying training and equipment to support the Armed Forces of Malta's capability to search and rescue, interdict weapons of mass destruction, track terrorist figures, and stop the illegal trafficking in humans or drugs. We must not allow an interpretation of the scope of a constitutional neutrality provision to be taken advantage of by those who might wish to use a Maltese port to unleash a future terror plot, whether in London, Madrid, on a flight bound for Detroit, or for that matter, may the good Lord forbid, Valletta.

Permit me to conclude by expressing the gratitude of my fellow Americans for the high regard European citizens have for Mr Obama as he completes his first year. Having stabilised an economy jeopardised by an avarice that undermines the very freedom of a free market, having thoughtfully evaluated an intractable war from the standpoint of both military and non-military approaches, and by continuing to persevere to extend healthcare to those who have previously been left out of this basic human right, Mr Obama has achieved greatly in his first year.

There remains much to do in the new year opening before us, of course, including most prominently addressing the continuing security threat and humanitarian injustice that persists in the Middle East so long as a two state solution is needlessly delayed or equivocated.

May both of our nations, and all those genuinely working toward peace on earth, be blessed in the new year.

Prof. Kmiec is the US Ambassador to Malta

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