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Diplomacy in Action

Interview With Gabor Zord of Magyar Nemzet

Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Budapest, Hungary
January 13, 2011


QUESTION: Sir, you are here in Budapest because of the Hungarian presidency, to meet the political directors of the European Union. But I would like to start this interview with an overall question.

Can you tell us where the U.S. foreign policy is moving? There is a lot of talk about less focus on Europe and more focus on the Asia Pacific region. I know that you’re an official and it’s sometimes difficult, but can you tell us something about that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I’d be happy to, and it’s not difficult at all because it is the case that Europe remains central to American foreign policy. I know there’s a lot of talk about how America is dealing with other regions and challenges around the world and it’s absolutely true that we and the President spend a lot of time focusing on the Middle East an Afghanistan and the rise of China and India and issues that are not in Europe. That’s undeniable and it’s also I think most Europeans would recognize absolutely appropriate for the President of the United States to be dealing with these major challenges.

What I think is important for everyone, Europeans to understand, is that this doesn’t come at the expense of the relationship with Europe, but in fact makes the relationship with Europe all the more important. It is precisely because we are faced with such tremendous challenges around the world, and with the knowledge that we, the United States, can’t deal with those challenges alone, we need strong partners. We need partners who are democratic and stable, and see the world like we do, and are militarily capable. Where do you think we find them? We find them in Europe. That’s why when I have conversations with my counterparts in Europe or when Secretary Clinton does or when President Obama does, we spend a significant amount of time talking about how we can together deal with the rest of the world. That’s the prism through which we see the relationship with Europe. Obviously we still have challenges and issues within Europe, but more and more Europe is our global partner and that’s to a significant degree what the relationship is about, and we hope some of the Hungarian presidency would be focused on joint management of these global challenges.

QUESTION: In terms of security, does it mean that the United States in the future would like to see its European allies more capable to have the capability to look after themselves more than it was during the Cold War era or in the past 20 years?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I think inevitably, yes. We support a strong Europe. We support a Europe that can deal with its own affairs more than in the past. And we have a Europe that can deal with its own affairs more than in the past.

To a large degree in the past Europe was part of the problem in terms of global security,—the Cold War divisions and the requirement for 300,000 American troops. Fortunately, there’s no longer a requirement for 300,000 American troops in Europe and that’s a huge collective success for Europe and the United States.

Now Europe is less the problem and more the solution to the global challenges we face together. So we welcome a Europe that can deal more and more with its own problems.

But again, at the same time let me be clear that we feel we’re a part of Europe and Europe’s problems are still our problems. So we’re not walking away from our commitment to Europe itself. Let us say that most members of the European Union are stable and prosperous democracies, or less an urgent challenge to the United States than some other areas. But we see other parts of Europe -- we just faced a challenge to democracy in Belarus; there are parts of the Balkans that aren’t as fully stable and democratic and peaceful as we would like; the Caucasus: there is remaining instability and unresolved conflict--so by no means do we think we can leave Europe behind and aren’t a major player on this scene. We are, but at the same time we need to work with Europe around the world.

QUESTION: Sir, you have told us a number of things which are common between the U.S. and Europe. Where do the agreements end? I ask this because certainly there are interests which are different. For example, regarding Russia.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: First, I think as a general observation there are actually fewer and fewer disagreements on strategic issues with Europe than when you compare it to almost any time in the past. That’s a good thing. There have been times, not least in recent years, where over Iraq or Iran or the Middle East or climate change there were significant differences across the Atlantic. That’s less and less true. That’s a good thing.

I think the same is true about Russia. I don’t detect major disagreements between the United States and Europe about Russia. We have a dialogue about how to handle Russia. And whereas there might have been at the start of the Obama administration some questions or concerns in parts of Europe about what our policy towards Russia would be, I think –- and it’s not for me to speak for Europeans or East Europeans –- but I think most have come around to understand that we are trying to improve our relationship with Russia in our common interest and in Europe’s interest without sacrificing our principles or our friends in Europe. I think we’ve done exactly that, and we’ve succeeded in having the New START Agreement; we’ve succeeded in expanding our economic relationship with Russia; we’ve succeeded in getting more cooperation from Russia on Afghanistan and Iran. But at the same time we’ve strongly stood by our Central European allies; we’ve moved forward on missile defense; we’ve moved forward on NATO and NATO enlargement; we’ve stood by Georgia and its sovereignty and territorial integrity; and I don’t think anyone can say that we’ve failed to stand by our friends and allies even as we pursued a better relationship with Europe; and my sense is Europeans are pretty comfortable with the way we’re handling Russia.

QUESTION: Taking into account the emerging powers in the East, do you think that in the long run those issues staying between Russia and the West, which remain unresolved even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, can be solved? And that we will see a real change in terms of military confrontation? So do you think that it’s possible that in the long run Russia and the West can be allies? Because during NATO summit, the signing of the START Agreement which finally was ratified by the U.S. Congress, it seems that there is some movement in this direction.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: We’re not there yet, but we’re on our way there. Twenty years after the Cold War there’s still too much of a legacy of suspicion and tension, and we would like to get to the point where Russia simply doesn’t see NATO or the United States as a potential adversary.

I don’t think we’re there yet. That’s why when we want to move forward with something like missile defense it’s still a controversy in Russia. When we expand our military cooperation in Central East Europe, there are still complaints from Moscow because there’s still this residual attitude of an adversarial relationship. Maybe that’s understandable after all the years of the Cold War.

So there’s more work to get done, and that’s our vision, to get to a place where it’s inconceivable that there could be a conflict between Russia and the West, just like it is now among members of the European Union.

But still we’ve made a lot of progress in that regard, even in recent years. At Lisbon there was a major dispute between the United States and NATO and Russia over Georgia in 2008. Now we’ve revived the NATO/Russia Council and we were not only able to have a meeting of the NATO/Russia council in Lisbon, but to announce cooperation on missile defense. So we’re gradually chipping away at this legacy.

Everybody knows these historical legacies are enduring and take more than a generation to get over, but that’s the course we’ve charted and where we ultimately hope to end up.

QUESTION: It’s clear at the strategic level it’s very important for the United States to lessen its confrontation with Russia because of emerging challenges. To allocate resources from the old confrontation. But what is the price of this restart with Russia? Some say that compared to the years of the Bush administration, the U.S. push, for example, for energy diversification in our region is not that strong.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I just don’t think that’s accurate at all, either on the specific case of energy diversity or broadly in any way. As I said, when we made clear we wanted to develop and have a better relationship with Russia the key premise was that it would not come at the cost of our strong and unwavering support for the sovereignty, territorial integrity of our allies in Europe, their right to choose whatever alliance they wanted to be in, that we rejected spheres of influence. I think we’ve absolutely held to that.

As I said, there may have been suspicions that we would cancel missile defense because it offended Russia. It’s true, we changed the previous administration’s approach to missile defense, but with the result of a missile defense plan that we think is going to be much more effective and includes deployments of advanced SM-3 missiles in some of the same countries Russia was worried about, namely Poland and also Romania. We did that because it was the best way to defend European populations, territories and our troops in Europe, and for no other reason.

We’ve also been very clear on Georgia. We have a difference with Russia on Georgia. It would be very easy for us in the name of better relations with Russia to walk away from Georgia and not stand by what we believe is the principle of Georgian territorial integrity and sovereignty. We don’t walk away. We’ve strongly supported Georgia and we will continue to.

On energy diversity, same thing. It’s been a priority for the Obama administration. Secretary Clinton launched the US/EU Energy Council as a way to facilitate our cooperation on that issue in areas of policy and commerce and technology, and she took a trip last summer to Ukraine and Poland and the Caucuses -- Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia -- both to show our continued support for democracy in that part of the world, our continued support for the right of those countries to choose their alliances, and our support for energy diversity in Europe. She participated in the US/EU Energy Council at the Lisbon summit, on the margins of the Lisbon summit, in November of last year.

So I think in all of those areas we’ve been absolutely true to our word that the better relationship with Russia, we’re not naïve about it; we think it’s in our mutual interest and we’re not going to allow it to stand in the way of our strong support for our allies and friends in Europe.

QUESTION: Actually maintaining the energy supply system, global energy supply system in the past 20-25 years, the presence of the U.S. military in the Middle East and Middle Asia had of course a role. With the announcement of defense cuts which shows that the land forces, the number of land forces will be lower after 2015, the United States has probably given a sign that it’s very positive that the withdrawal plans from the region will go ahead.

QUESTION: From which region?

QUESTION: From Afghanistan I’m thinking. Of course Iraq is this year.

How do you think the United States will be able to support militarily the global energy supply system if it withdraws from the Middle East or it lessens its commitment?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I don’t know of any plans to withdraw from the Middle East. We have a commitment to global security including in the Persian Gulf and Middle East and in Asia to open sea lines and to energy flows. Obviously we’re constantly reviewing our global deployments to make sure they’re best adapted to the evolving situation, but no one is going to walk away from the basic principle that we need to ensure global energy supplies, and therefore our commitment to the Middle East is unwavering.

Afghanistan is a different story. The President increased the number of troops to try to help bring stability to destroy and dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Afghanistan. We believe we have a plan that will allow us to wind down that presence significantly over the coming years and we’ll move ahead from that, but in no way is that walking away from the commitment to ensure energy security for the world.

QUESTION: Sir, the last two questions.

Let’s move our focus towards the East. Secretary Gates’ visit, four day visit to China and the push to build military links, and it was emphasized that they want to build military links, somehow reminded me to the system of the Cold War when there were clear confrontations, but still there were very high level working relationships between the two sides to prevent any spillover, for the Cold War to become hot.

Don’t you think we see something similar happening now between China and the United States? With mutual respect everyone starts to become comfortable with the idea that kind of 21st Century Cold War in the Asia Pacific will take place?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: We don’t think we’re in a Cold War with China, but it is true that there are aspects of cooperation and aspects of competition in the relationship with China. As you say, that was apparent in Secretary Gates’ visit which on one hand was to restart military-to-military relations with China after they were interrupted following a U.S. arms sale to Taiwan which is an example of the competitive part of the relationship. And you’re right- we’re trying to manage it through engagement and even as we will continue to stand by our other allies in Asia, and to do what we can to ensure that no power has a hegemonic position in Asia, we also want to remain engaged with the Chinese because we have a lot of work to do together and we’re trying to manage that challenging relationship.

QUESTION: Actually China is also on the edge regarding your relationship to Europe and probably in the next six months some issues will be raised. Probably one of the most important issues is the arms embargo on China. What is your position on this? What would you suggest to your European friends?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: The arms embargo was put on in the first place over an issue of human rights and democracy following Tiananmen. We don’t think there has been sufficient progress on human rights and democracy to merit the symbolic step of repealing that arms embargo. Maybe even more importantly, given that the United States is primarily responsible for maintaining security in Asia, I don’t think it would be welcomed in Washington or understood in Washington or across the United States as a whole if Europe were to lift the embargo at a time of military challenges and tensions in Asia. So we think it should stay in place.

QUESTION: The last one, sir, the perception if you follow the media, is that the Hungarian presidency started out under siege because of the media law. Being close allies to Hungary beside the other European countries, what do you think and what do you consider in the U.S. State Department as appropriate ways to tell your allies, who you share values with, to reconsider decisions? And when is the time, do you think, you have to tell?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: We are allies and friends with Hungary with which we think we share democratic values, and as friends we can have frank conversations about these issues, and we have said that the debate over the media law has been a distraction to the start of the Hungarian presidency of the EU which really should be focused on all of the things we have to do together in the Balkans, in the Eastern Partnership, on the global economy. That’s what we want to be talking about.

So we have -- it’s not for us to dictate to Hungary what its media laws should be or any laws, but we have said as a friend of Hungary that there is a significant international concern about this law, concern about the future of freedom of expression in Hungary. We care deeply about free media and free expression which we think is at the heart of democracy, which requires contestation and conversation. And because there is such significant concern it’s important for Hungary to listen to its friends. They have assured us that they are prepared to do so. That is the right way forward.

QUESTION: Sir, thank you very much.


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