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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Interview With Der Spiegel

Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Washington, DC
October 26, 2009


QUESTION: You’ve written in your book that one very important imperative is for American policy to restore its moral authority. So what does it look like after nine months? A new government?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I do think that restoring America’s credibility and moral authority in the world was a key premise of the Obama campaign and presidency and I think since he has been in office he has taken important steps to do so. Announcing the plans to close Guantanamo right from the very start of the administration, taking a lead on issues like climate change that most of the rest of the world cared significantly about, reaching out across the board in a number of ways, his speech in Cairo on the Islamic world, and then just, frankly, a general style and tone of diplomacy, of taking the concerns of others seriously. I think all of that together shows a real respect for the views of others around the world and is a key premise to the goal of restoring our moral authority in the world.

QUESTION: That was something we all waited for, signals like that. But there were a lot of signals, there were a lot of speeches, there are a lot of approaches. But is there also real progress?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I think there is. I mean if you think about the issues that undermined America’s moral authority, the greatest questions in the views of others after -- For many, the American leadership role was welcomed for decades and then it came into question. What was responsible for that? I think it was issues like not acting on climate change which was very important to people around the world. The Guantanamo prison, the issue of torture and detainee treatment, the invasion of Iraq. And I think in all of those areas we’ve seen policy change and progress. That has significantly, I mean just look at opinion polls of what people think of America’s leadership and moral authority, it has, these actions have --

QUESTION: -- The approval rate in Germany is 90 percent.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Not just the approval of the President but the respect for American leadership, the desire for American leadership

QUESTION: I think nobody can doubt this. But do you see real progress if you look at the bad guys? If you look to Iran, if you look to the Taliban in Afghanistan, to the Muslim world, do you get what you want?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Well, I mean these are two separate issues. I don’t think anybody thought A, that it would be easy to just restore moral authority and everyone would change their view of the United States; or B, that somehow this would translate quickly and immediately into the resolution of difficult problems.

We would be the first to admit that the challenges we face in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, are huge challenges and we don’t have simple answers. But I think that’s also, frankly, part of the Obama approach. We recognize that we don’t have simple answers. These are very difficult problems.

We also recognize that we can’t deal with them alone. We need to deal with them together with our friends and allies around the world and that’s why I started with this notion that we want to hear from our friends and allies, we respect their views. We don’t believe we have the absolute truth and know how to solve these problems alone. But we’re determined to do our best with the support of our friends.

QUESTION: Where do you see the most successful area of U.S. foreign policy right now?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Well the first point is that President Obama’s only been in for nine months and it takes time to deal with all aspects of foreign policy.

I think restoring the unity of the Atlantic Alliance is an important thing that in some ways has already been accomplished, I would argue, as that’s the part of the world I’m responsible for. When -- especially in comparison with past periods, certainly the previous eight years, but even before that -- when I compare where we stand with our key European Allies today, on the key issues of the day, I think there’s more transatlantic unity than at almost anytime in the post World War II period.

If you really think about -- again that’s not to say we have solved these problems, but when you look at the problems of dealing with Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East conflict, Iran nuclear issue, --

QUESTION: That’s apart from the economic crisis --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: -- climate change, dealing with the global financial crisis, we are very much on the same page and are working very well together. Again, that doesn’t make the problems go away but it is certainly a key component of our foreign policy to deal with these challenges together and I think that we’re doing very well in that regard.

QUESTION: No disappointment?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I think we’re very satisfied with the way we’re working with our European allies on all these things. Would we like to be making more and quicker progress in the problems themselves? Of course. Do we demand more and expect more of our allies? Always, because you always want more especially when facing a difficult situation. But we are very pleased with the degree of consensus and cooperation that we’re getting from our European allies.

QUESTION: You have a little change in the administration of one of your most important allies in Europe, and we have a new government in Germany. Do you see that as a positive development when it comes to the transatlantic friendship?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I am sure that we’ll work very well with the new German government. First of all, it’s not an enormous change. The chancellor is still the same as previously. But yes, it’s a new coalition and it’s just getting underway and so we’ll look forward to getting to know them and working with them, but I’m sure we’ll work very well together.

QUESTION: We have a new Secretary of State, Mr. Guido Westerwelle, who will sooner or later come to Washington. You have met him before? Do you have any experience with him?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I don’t know him personally. Of course I’ve followed his career and know what he’s done and look forward to working with him, but I don’t know him personally.

QUESTION: But there’s still, even if it’s at the beginning of the new government, some disappointment in Germany about the U.S. because you are reviewing your Afghanistan strategy, and nearly all the allies are out of the room. They don’t feel very well informed. Maybe it’s not possible to inform them because you’re in the middle of a very difficult process. What’s your take on that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I would say just that. We are in the middle of a very difficult process. I think allies had some experience previously with an administration that made quick decisions and went on to implement them and then informed the allies what those decisions were, and that’s not what we are doing or plan to do. I think we are in close touch with our allies as we work this through, but it is true there is not a quick and simple decision emerging from this process because it’s a very difficult question. I think and hope that our allies appreciate the fact that we want to get it right.

The election outcome in Afghanistan was not the one we expected and much of the strategy was designed to pivot on a clear-cut result of election that didn’t happen. So we are now reassessing how to implement the Afghan strategy the President decided last spring in a context with some new variables like this very ambiguous election outcome that required waiting for the reports of the Independent Electoral Commission and so on.

That is now starting to move forward finally with the decision to have a runoff, which wasn’t clear before, and what the parties are going to do. So I think we understand allied impatience at the result of the strategy review. It’s not really a strategy review, but the review of policy and of notation.

I would add we’re impatient too. I mean no one has a greater stake in getting on with this and knowing what we’re doing and succeeding as we do. But we hope and think that allies understand that there are a lot of variables. They should be talked through, they should be examined carefully.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: That is ongoing now. It’s been ongoing for a few weeks.

QUESTION: When do you think --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I don’t think it will last much longer because now we know that there will be a second round of the Afghan election on November 7. It will take a little bit of time for the results to come in. Then at least we’ll know what Afghan government we’re dealing with. We have said that --

QUESTION: Obama will be over in Asia I think for nearly ten days. During this period of time do you expect anything?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I can’t say. We’ll have to see exactly what the timing is. No doubt much of the work I believe will be done before that. But I think that is one key unknown that will become clear on November 7th and allow the process to move forward. But I would stress it’s better to get the right answer having examined all of the possibilities than to rush into something just to show that you’re capable of making quick decisions and then find out with new information or a new analysis that it wasn’t really the right thing to do.

And we’re in very close touch with our coalition partners who are also expending a lot of resources and lives, taking risks in Afghanistan, and they need to be part of this process too.

QUESTION: One of your generals criticized the German Bundeswehr very heavily in public, in the Washington Post, General McChrystal, after the bombing of two trucks in the north of Afghanistan. Do you remember this?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I know the incident, yes.

QUESTION: What’s your take on that? Do you think it was the right way to criticize the German troops there in public?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I’m not familiar with his specific comments, but I would just generally say we have great respect for what the Bundeswehr is doing in Afghanistan. Germany has more than 4,000 troops there. They make a great and important contribution.

It’s a very difficult situation and it’s easy to second-guess things that happen on the ground. But in general we have great appreciation and respect for what Germany is doing in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: The election fraud in Afghanistan was an eye-opener for many people in the U.S. and Germany as well. Many people came to the conclusion this government is not only corrupt as it was described before, it’s also making political legitimacy [inaudible]. So how can we ask our people to provide more troops to support a government like that? Or let’s word it a little bit more towards the U.S., how can you ask the people or your allies to support more lives for a war like that, for a government like that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I think that the straightest answer to that question is out of self interest and out of concern for the people of Afghanistan.

We were disappointed with the election outcome. It’s a good thing that procedures are being used and fraudulent votes have been disqualified and they’re moving towards a second round which will hopefully provide more legitimacy to the outcome. So it’s a good thing that we are sticking to the rules that we put out there and not white-washing anything and not allowing fraudulent votes to count even though we were disappointed that the problem existed to that degree in the first place.

I don’t think anyone expected that the election would be immaculate in the first place. Even in other countries there have been complicated elections with electoral problems.

QUESTION: Even in a huge country.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: In other countries there have been. Afghanistan, without a history of democracy and regulations and legal systems in place, no one was surprised that the election was imperfect. It was more imperfect than we hoped and wanted it to be. But again, we hope that the second round will provide more legitimacy.

And even with the imperfections, the bottom line is we’re not there to do favors for people or reward their good behavior in elections. We’re there because we think that abandoning Afghanistan as the international community did before can lead it to regress into chaos, warlordism, drug trafficking, and a haven for al-Qaida which has struck Europe and America alike.

So the first reason we’re there is simply self interest. Why are we asking our sons and daughters, men and women to go and fight and spending all these resources? Because we think that helps protect ourselves, because in the absence of it, it could degrade to where it was before.

We’re also doing it for the Afghan people. Most of whom aren’t responsible for this particular mess, but many of whom suffer horribly the consequences if we were to leave and allow the Taliban and even worse, al-Qaida to come to power and treat people the way that they did when the Taliban was in power before. So it’s also a question of helping millions of Afghans avoid such a horrible outcome.

QUESTION: We knew that since a couple of years now, we’ve poured billions into the country. We’ve provided a lot of troops and human lives for it --


QUESTION: -- and still what we don’t see is basically the basic structures of a civil society emerging, as we perhaps see it in Iraq which is more used to structures anyway. But do we have the right approach in Afghanistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Do we have the right approach is a question that the President and the policy review have been asking because we should constantly ask whether we have the right approach and that’s what the McChrystal report was about, suggesting changes in the approach. We need to constantly ask that question. But I think there’s much less debate about whether we need to continue to do what we can to avoid the Taliban coming back and al-Qaida coming back. We can ask questions about the best way of implementing --

The overall strategy is to defeat and deter al-Qaida in Afghanistan. There is little debate about whether we need to do that. There is a discussion about the best way to do that and we should --

QUESTION: But in Germany and in Europe as you know, a lot of countries decided to withdraw, some of the countries and in Germany for example the wise politicians like Helmut Schmidt, but also [inaudible], the old gray-haired leaders. They all advise the people, let’s go home. That’s not the part of the world -- We can accomplish nearly nothing, even if we would like to accomplish something, we cannot do it. Do you understand? And how would you explain for yourself this European, maybe typical German approach?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: It’s not surprising that there are serious questions being raised about our commitment in Afghanistan. It’s very costly and it has uncertain outcomes, so it’s not surprising that people are discussing and debating it.

I would challenge the notion that Europeans are somehow rushing for the exits or withdrawing. I mean largely, they’re not. There are more European troops there possibly than there ever have been. There’s a lot of discussion and debate about countries that might withdraw their contingents of a thousand. But the bottom line is that there are more European troops there then there were last year or the year before that.

Some increased in the context of the elections and others are talking about increasing in the future. So even if you might have the feeling that questioning is blossoming, in fact Europeans are there in very significant numbers and more than in the past.

And I think we need to, no one claimed or should claim that a couple of months or years of intervention turns Afghanistan into a completely stable place with stable structures and nothing to worry about. That’s not the realistic goal. But comparing even what we’ve achieved now, which is far from perfect, with what the situation would be like if we followed that advice and simply said we can’t help this place, let’s just go. I think that comparison is pretty easy and there’s broad support even in Europe for that.

QUESTION: What else is on the transatlantic agenda? In Germany there’s a lot of [inaudible] about the protection and debate in the U.S. Congress. And what would you answer the German voice, the German business community about that?


QUESTION: Protectionism.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I would say that given the depth of the financial and economic and unemployment crisis that we have just gone through, there is a remarkably small protectionist quotient in the United States. I mean I think if you had imagined even five or ten years ago and you said what if we had this massive crisis and ten percent unemployment, I think you would have predicted a real protectionist surge, you know, like in the early ‘90s and Ross Perot and opposition to NAFTA. And you’ve got Democrats taking the Congress and a Democrat in the White House and there’s not a protectionist surge. There’s maybe a little bit more clamoring for -- Let’s say there’s less enthusiasm for new free trade agreements than there had been, but I actually think given the circumstances, and I think this President understands the benefits of globalization and believes in free trade.

QUESTION: The problem is not the President or the administration. The problem is more about what will go on.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Those are legitimate worries, but again I think unemployment has doubled in the past couple of years and there’s not a massive protectionist surge.

QUESTION: So America will be a free trade country?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Yes. America will continue to believe in free trade and the benefits of free trade. And certainly in the transatlantic context, one of the most open markets in the world.

QUESTION: Another thing which is watched by Europeans with a little concern is when we come to financial regulation. We have gone through this crisis. We know the causes for the crisis. We see a huge rise in speculation again. We see huge masses of money floating around. And everybody’s asking wasn’t there something a year ago, something very fundamental?

Basically where are the tight measures? Are we awaiting, the Europeans perhaps a bit more eagerly than the Americans, where are the tough rules which should put the financial markets a little bit more under control?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I don’t think that the gap on that issue is that great, either. There are obviously historical and cultural reasons why some Europeans are more inclined to implement regulations and Americans more averse to it, but on the whole I think the G20 process has actually been pretty good in having that debate, structuring that debate, and keeping us more or less on the same page. I know President Obama and Chancellor Merkel have discussed this several times including in person, and they understand each other’s perspectives. Not to say that they would speak about it in exactly the same way, but there’s not a huge gap there.

I think Americans as a whole, especially in the midst of a financial crisis, understand the need for more regulation. But Europeans understand that you need a functioning market. I’ll leave it to experts to design exactly how the international regulation rules should work.

But I think we have a constructive process going on within the G20 that’s doing exactly what it was set up to do which is to make sure this works together among the big powers because we can’t do it in a disjointed fashion.

QUESTION: But if you look at the market for derivatives which were responsible for part of this crisis, or partly responsible for this crisis, this market is totally unregulated. Huge masses of money are floating around. Entities like [inaudible] are speculating like years before. So we don’t see any progress there.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I don’t know. I don’t think it’s necessarily like years before, but that is going to be the task of this review is how do you regulate these new tools without choking off the benefits that come from free market activities? And I think the needle has moved towards more regulation on both sides of the Atlantic.

QUESTION: The difference is we don’t have Wall Street in Germany. Maybe we would look at it in a different way if we would have this kind of industry.

What else do you expect? Do you have another point where you think it’s important for the Germans and the Europeans to have a closer look, or maybe to contribute more to the Obama policy?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Well again, I would stress the point I made before that despite whatever appearances might be, the U.S.-European relationship is actually in great shape and that’s a good and necessary thing.

President Obama came to office understanding that Americans cannot deal with these challenges alone. Whoever might have thought that, especially after the 1990’s and in the 2000’s when we were so rich and powerful and militarily powerful, some Americans might have thought Europe get out of the way, we’re going to do this ourselves.

President Obama understood that’s not possible. We need to work together with allies, and as we look around the world what allies matter? It’s mostly our successful, democratic, like-minded, prosperous European friends who are key. And so it is a good thing that on most of these big challenges we’re working together and that we see the problems very much alike.

I think that will continue under the new German government and we will continue to look to our European friends as we deal with everything that we have been talking here about.

QUESTION: One last question. Copenhagen. Do you expect that the Americans will set their underwriting under a new climate change treaty?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Well, I don’t think it’s going to depend just on the Americans for there to be a treaty at Copenhagen. Everyone is going to have to agree and that’s going be a major challenge. I know many are starting to think now that a treaty in Copenhagen, that the world is not going to be ready for a treaty. But that doesn’t mean we should lower our objectives.

We take the issue very seriously. I think the Obama administration has taken a number of important steps including $80 billion for clean energy in the stimulus bill and support for measures in Congress that will vastly reduce our emissions by 2050. And all of that needs to be consolidated in advance in time for Copenhagen.

Whether that’s enough to get a treaty that would have to involve China and India and everyone else is unclear, but we need to continue to strive for that, and even if the world falls short of a treaty get a political agreement that will be the basis for a treaty. Because whatever the timing of it, it’s clear that we need action in this area and the United States needs to continue to lead.

QUESTION: Thank you.


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