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Diplomacy in Action

The U.S.-Europe Partnership Under the Obama Administration

Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Remarks before the Council on Foreign Relations
Washington, DC
December 9, 2009


As prepared

Thank you, Karen, for that kind introduction. I’m delighted to be back at the Council and to have the opportunity to talk with all of you this evening about the U.S.-Europe partnership under the Obama administration, particularly as we approach the first anniversary of the administration.

U.S.-European cooperation is so vast a topic that it’s hard to know where to start or where to end. But let me start with Afghanistan, not just because it’s so timely—with the rollout of a new strategy, testimony on Capitol Hill by Secretaries Clinton and Gates, and the NATO ministerial last week—but also because it is so illustrative of the type of partnership we have and want with Europe.

Afghanistan is a challenge whose effects are felt across national borders, which no single country can resolve on its own, and where U.S.-European cooperation is the essential foundation for progress. As such, our approach there reflects a central insight in President Obama’s foreign policy: that no one country, no matter how large or powerful, can confront the challenges of the 21st century alone. And in confronting these challenges, nowhere are there better or more serious or more valuable partners than in Europe, where we engage with prosperous, militarily-capable democracies who care about the things we do.

For all these reasons, we are delighted with the European response to the President’s speech on Afghanistan last week, in which he explained our strategy to deny al Qaeda a safe haven, reverse Taliban momentum, and to strengthen the Afghan security forces and government. This strategy relies on the robust cooperation of our European partners, both in terms of military resources and civilian assistance. This deep U.S. and European commitment to Afghanistan is born of a recognition that a safe haven for al Qaeda is as much a threat to Europe as it is to the United States.

Immediately after the President’s announcement, our ISAF partners stepped up with political and military support. At the NATO ministerial, 25 different allies pledged new contributions, consisting of significant new economic resources, training efforts, and 7,000 new troops—with more to come. We take this as a demonstration that this is not an American strategy or an American war but a truly international effort, a condition which is essential to our success.

As I said, I began by highlighting Afghanistan because it is emblematic of how the United States and Europe can and do cooperate on the most important global challenges of the day. In that respect, I want to make two points absolutely clear tonight: First, the United States looks forward to working with a strong, cohesive Europe as a partner in meeting the security and economic challenges of the 21st century. And second, we have already seen in the first year of this administration an extraordinarily high—and possibly unprecedented—level of unity and common purpose as the United States and Europe have stood shoulder to shoulder to face gathering global threats. I have been working on U.S.-Europe issues for several decades, and would dare say that I don’t think there has been a time in my professional career when our global strategies are as in sync as they are today.

I am certainly aware that some have suggested that the centrality of the relationship between the United States and Europe has somehow diminished as a result of the many far-flung, global challenges the United States is facing today and the simultaneous rise of new powers. In my opinion, this view is not only fundamentally mistaken, but the opposite is the case. It is precisely because we are faced with such a daunting global agenda that we need to cooperate with our European allies to the degree that we do.

Some of the concerns that have been voiced stem from the fact that President Obama’s election was greeted with such high expectations around the world. Compared with those often unrealistically high expectations, our cooperation with Europe might not be so impressive: we must admit that differences still exist and that not all the world’s problems would be solved in a year. A more realistic assessment, however, I think reveals that the United States and Europe are working extraordinarily well together even on problems such as Iran, Iraq, climate change, closing Guantanamo, and the Middle East that so divided us in the past.

The other point I want to highlight is this: it is precisely because we look forward to working with a strong European partner that we welcomed the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty last week. The treaty marks a milestone for Europe and its role in the world. It creates new institutions, such as the European Council Presidency, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and the European External Action Service, that will guide the further evolution of the European Union toward a more consistent, coherent, and effective foreign policy. We look forward to the development of these institutions and to engaging with their new leaders, incoming President Van Rompuy and High Representative Ashton, on the whole host of issues on the U.S.-EU agenda.

The cooperation we envision with Europe going forward builds on a solid foundation of engagement and progress over the past year. To be sure, we have not solved all the problems we face in the past eleven months. But what I want to emphasize tonight is that the challenges we have faced in some cases owe to the difficulty of the tasks at hand, not any lack of transatlantic cooperation. On the contrary, on some of the toughest problems we have seen an unusually high degree of cohesion between the United States and Europe. I have already mentioned Afghanistan as a prime example of this. The list of others is long, including responding to the global financial crisis, promoting peace in the Middle East, negotiating with Iran, and combating climate change. Let me elaborate on a couple of these now:

In many ways, the foundation of the U.S.-European partnership is economic. The transatlantic economy is the largest in the world—with 14 million jobs tied to transatlantic trade and $3.75 trillion in mutual investment. This interdependence makes it essential that we work together to coordinate trade and financial policy, an imperative that has only increased with the global financial crisis. The coordinated fiscal and monetary response pursued by the United States and Europe through the G-20 and beyond was a crucial factor in stabilizing the world economy earlier this year.

In the security sphere, one of the paramount concerns for both the United States and Europe is the Iranian nuclear program. We remain committed to a peaceful diplomatic solution to this issue and we are working very closely with our EU partners, as well as Russia and China, to achieve this objective, which was one of the leading subjects for discussion at the November U.S.-EU Summit. The P5+1 process, which we also know as the EU3+3, has been the crucial channel through which we have sought to engage Iran. At the same time, we expect to see results, and there must be consequences if Iran fails to fulfill its obligations.

Another notable example of cooperation is our new Phased Adaptive Approach to European ballistic missile defense. The approach is based on recognition of two essential facts: First, the threat from Iran’s short- and medium-range ballistic missiles has developed more rapidly than expected, while the long-range ballistic missile threat has developed more slowly. And second, advancements in missile defense technology enable us to field improved capabilities sooner to defend against this threat, which is what we have proposed to our Central European allies. Despite some initial misunderstanding about the nature of our plan, I am pleased to say that, now that our approach has been fully explained to our allies, they are very supportive. We are having productive discussions with Poland and the Czech Republic about their potential participation in the new missile defense architecture and have had similarly useful discussions with the rest of our NATO allies, who strongly embraced our Phased Adaptive Approach at last week’s ministerial.

Climate change is another major global issue where the United States and Europe have found common cause—which is especially noteworthy since not so long ago this was an issue that divided us. President Obama will travel to Copenhagen later this month to make clear the United States commitment to combating climate change. While the contours of a final agreement have yet to be agreed upon, we have shown our seriousness by putting on the table a U.S. emissions reduction target in the range of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, which is in line with energy and climate change legislation being considered by Congress. In any global climate agreement, we will expect both developed and major developing countries to make significant reductions to their carbon emissions. For our part, the United States under this President has shown its own deep commitment to fighting the threat of climate change and laying the foundation for a clean energy future.

Some of our shared challenges are located in Europe itself, as U.S. and European officials work together to continue the political transformation of the Balkans and to complete the region’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic community. Here the track record of U.S.-European cooperation speaks for itself: together, we ended wars, stopped ethnic cleansing, and helped build new democracies. All of the countries in the region have undergone dramatic political, economic, and social transitions. Montenegro and Serbia have made tremendous strides in the development of their democracies. Albania and Croatia became members of NATO in April. Macedonia too is ready and will receive an invitation to join NATO as soon as the dispute with Greece over the name issue is resolved. Nearly two years ago, Kosovo became an independent nation and in November it successfully held its first elections as a sovereign country. In Bosnia, senior U.S. and European officials are working together closely to encourage that country’s leaders to take the steps needed to stay on the path of reform and political progress. The progress we have made and will continue to make toward a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous Balkans is undeniable proof of the power of U.S.-European cooperation.

Let me also say a brief word about our approach toward Russia and how it fits in with our broader conception of cooperation with Europe. Our strategy is simple: Where we have common interests with Russia, we shall seek to cooperate. Where we have differences, we will not hesitate to voice them. This is the essence of the “reset” with Russia and it has paid dividends. We are in the midst of negotiating a follow-on agreement to the START treaty, we have implemented a bilateral agreement on a lethal transit corridor which uses Russian airspace to support the war in Afghanistan and through which flights have already begun, and Russia has joined us in the UN Security Council in tightening sanctions against North Korea and in the IAEA in censuring Iranian non-compliance with its international nuclear obligations. None of this cooperation, however, has come at the expense of our principles or our friends—whether on the issue of Georgian territorial integrity and sovereignty, the importance of human rights in Russia, or our unshakeable Article 5 commitment to the defense of our NATO allies.

I could go on with more items on the U.S.-European agenda but what this tour d’horizon of issues demonstrates, I think, is both how many challenges there are which need a global approach and how much progress we have made in working on these challenges together. What Afghanistan, Iran, missile defense, climate change, and all the other issues I mentioned have in common is that they are complex, international challenges which no one country can handle on its own. And what I want to emphasize just as much is that on each one of these issues the United States and Europe are demonstrating a remarkably high level of agreement and common action. These are issues that we can resolve only by working in concert, and working with our European partners, I am sure we will.

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