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Diplomacy in Action

U.S.-Spain Partnership

Press Availability
Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Madrid Press Roundtable
Madrid, Spain
July 11, 2011


Ambassador Solomont: [Inaudible] As you all know I’m working hard on my Spanish but I haven’t quite gotten there yet. We are very honored to have the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Philip Gordon with us today.

As you know the Secretary of State was here about a week ago, with I think a very important message about the value we place in our friendship and partnership with Spain and the Assistant Secretary has had the occasion to talk with greater detail today with our counterparts here in Spain about our partnership and about all the important things that we’re working on together. Unfortunately we’re on a tighter timeframe than we had thought. I’m going to let the Assistant Secretary go in about 30 minutes. I recently returned from Afghanistan if anyone has any desire to ask questions or talk to me about what I found in Afghanistan, we’re throwing that in as a bonus.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Is it free?

Ambassador Solomont: It’s absolutely free. Everything here is free. Anyway, with that, our distinguished Assistant Secretary Phil Gordon. Welcome.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Alan, thank you. Buenas tardes to everybody. I really am delighted to be here. I will just very briefly share a few thoughts and then really just looking forward to answering your questions. As the ambassador said, I’m here for the same reason the Secretary of State was here last week which is to consult with our Spanish partners on a very full global agenda that we deal with and to express our appreciation for Spain’s role in sharing that agenda with us. And by that agenda I’m referring to some of the things that I discussed in my meetings with counterparts this morning at the foreign ministry, at the Presidency’s office, and elsewhere. It’s a long list but I can give you a sense of some of the key things we focused on.

One was Libya. Not only because that’s an urgent issue that we, as NATO allies, are cooperating on, but in particular, of course this week is the fourth meeting of the Libya contact group in Istanbul, to which I will be accompanying Secretary Clinton. And Foreign Minister Jimenez will be participating, along with an increasing number of other foreign ministers from countries that are sharing our goal in Libya which is to implement the Security council resolutions and to facilitate a transition in that country to a more representative regime for the Libyan people. And I’m happy to go into more details about what we’re trying to do on Libya. But as with all of the contact group meetings we are not only trying to expand the breadth and depth of the coalition but to increase our support for the Transitional National Council and to increase our pressure on the government, we believe we’ve been doing that and are confident that we’ll achieve our goals in Libya.

We talked about Afghanistan which is another global priority that we share and are working well together on. I expressed my appreciation for everything Spain is doing. Spain was one of those countries that joined us in increasing our troop presence, when President Obama took the lead in arguing that we needed to do more to provide security in Afghanistan to enable the transition, that we announced together at the Lisbon summit we wanted to achieve by 2014. So I expressed my appreciation to what Spain is doing. I expressed my condolences to the Spanish government for the losses that Spain recently suffered in Afghanistan which only underscores the risks and challenges in this difficult mission. In those discussions I think we shared the view that we are on track towards the conditions-based transition that President Obama announced and that we all agreed as NATO allies as our goal.

We talked a bit about the Balkans, another issue in which Spain has played an important role. I was in the Balkans myself a couple weeks ago so I wanted to share perspectives on that. I was in Warsaw 2 days ago for discussions with the European Union. Every six months at the start of a new presidency, and of course we’ve entered the Polish presidency, we have a US-EU political dialogue on international topics and we talked about the Arab spring, we talked about the Middle East, and we talked about the Balkans. So that was very much on my mind and agenda and I wanted to compare notes and consult with the Spanish government which has also played an active role there.

And we talked about the Middle East, that is to say, Israelis and Palestinians. I note that today in Washington the Quartet is meeting, so it was a critical moment and all the more reason for us to share perspectives on that. It is our hope, as the United States, that this Quartet meeting will reflect the views articulated by President Obama in his May 19th speech about the path forward in the Middle East and we are determined to press that path forward. We think with international support and participation we can get negotiations going that would be serious and that we believe is a better alternative than a vote in New York at the Security Council or the General Assembly on recognition of a Palestinian state, which we believe would be a gesture without positive or practical consequence and would interfere with the real negotiations that we believe are necessary. Our view is that only through real talks can the parties reach the agreements they need to. The President spelled out his vision for what those talks could focus on, where territory and security is concerned, 1967 borders and territorial swaps. We want to consult carefully with all of our European partners and I did so this morning with the Spanish government.

And then, let me also flag that we talked about developments in Europe, not least in terms of the Euro-zone, and the financial challenges, the sovereign debt crisis in Greece and Spain and all of the economic challenges that our European partners are facing. We see this primarily as a European issue that Europeans will and should take the lead on, but we also acknowledge we have a tremendous stake in the outcome given our trade and investment relationship in Europe that certainly applies to Spain which is one of our closest economic partners and one of the biggest and increasing investors in the US. I reiterated what Secretary Clinton said when she was here, which is we support the efforts of the Spanish government as difficult as they may be, to restore competitiveness and reduce deficits, which is something that we in the United States are trying to do as well. So, overall it’s just a flavor of some of the issues we talked about and continue to talk about. Secretary Clinton has had frequent interactions with Spanish Foreign Minister Jimenez and at many other levels of our government we have a very useful dialogue on these and other issues. And with that I will stop and look forward to any questions you might have.

Question: I wonder if after talking about these issues, are you not a little depressed?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: That’s an interesting question. In my line of work, one doesn’t have the luxury of being depressed. The world is a challenging place and we face many challenges and no one would deny that, talking about the Middle East and Afghanistan and the euro crisis. These are all very difficult. They are particularly difficult at a time when all of our governments are under financial pressure so it’s not as if we can just throw money at problems. But as hard as they are, I am, and I think we all are equally inspired by the solidarity that we see among friends and allies and this is sort of a feeling of rolling up our sleeves together and joining in a project to help ourselves and others that we care about. And so that is the flip side or positive side of a challenge, is that it brings people together. That’s what I think is happening within the Western Alliance. And as we face these challenges, there is something gratifying about doing that together and seeing that you share perspectives and you share interests and there are others who are trying to do the right thing for a lot of people. And so you could say this about many things, but to take Libya. Of course Libya is costly and challenging and frustrating but when you think that together we have stepped up to prevent probably a horrible massacre in Benghazi, which would have arguably been followed by a cutting off of that country and consigning it to an awful dictatorship for many years to come. You kind of feel good about what you’re doing together even understanding how hard it is. So we’re not depressed; we’re going to work every day. And I think we’re making important progress on some difficult issues.

Ambassador Solomont: Can I add, just to be brief, when I was a college student, because I’ve been asked this question before. In 1968 the United States was involved in an extremely divisive war. China was going through a cultural revolution, Latin America was a combination of right wing dictatorship and revolutionary guerrilla movements, South Africa was still under apartheid, Africa was very difficult, there was nothing happening there economically. The world was in a tough place. And by the way, Spain was under the thumb of a difficult dictatorship. And we were involved in a cold war with not just the Soviet Union but all of Eastern Europe. Today we’ve seen democracy spread throughout almost all of Europe, China at least has a market economy, Latin American is booming. We face very difficult challenges but we can look back over the past 40 years and see enormous amount of progress that we can leverage and capitalize on.

Question: So no reason to be depressed anymore.

Ambassador Solomont: Sun’s shining and here we are in Madrid.

Question: I want to continue on this positive mood the Ambassador has launched.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: I can just see the headlines now -- Assistant Secretary, everything’s fine.

Question: But going back to the Arab spring, if you see what has happened in Egypt and Tunisia and what might happen in Syria, we are witnessing something very different, that is the power of nonviolent movements. And if we can look at them from a historical perspective we haven’t seen this in ages, non violent demonstrators. And all of this inspired by U.S. writers from Thoreau, to [inaudible] or people like Gandhi, the people’s rising, and from non-violence overthrowing dictatorships. I don’t think enough writing and enough analysis has been done on this. What do you think of this?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Well I think there is also something to be encouraged by in what’s going on in the Arab world. We are all perfectly conscious of the challenges and risks and I’m not going to sit here and predict that these developments are going to lead to peace and stability and prosperity. Things can go badly wrong as they have in Libya, where violence was used and we had to intervene militarily, in Syria, where violence continues to be used. So, nobody can predict the outcome and we’re not naïve about it at all. But we do see the promise in the opportunity as well the risk. And again I think that was one of the things President Obama focused on in his May 19th speech -- let us remember that the status quo in that part of the world was not exactly a happy one for the people of that region or for us, in fact it was such a stagnant status quo that they had little promise or hope for the future and little to dream about and believe in. And what we saw was autonomous, spontaneous, homegrown demands for change, much like we saw in Eastern Europe in the 1980s that led to liberation of all those countries, and again I don’t want to sound like I’m making a perfect comparison. Europeans had many advantages that they don’t have in North Africa and the Middle East, but nonetheless it was people taking fate in their own hands, self determination, calling for democracy, and giving themselves something to feel good about.

And another thing in a perverse way that encourages us for what happens in the Middle East and Arab world is that we didn’t do it. I mean perverse is usually the most proud of the things you’ve accomplished. One of the encouraging things is that it wasn’t about us, it was about them. And they took the decision to fight for more personal freedoms and transparency and less corruption, and that, I think, gives it a better chance to succeed than if it were something we imposed on them. And what we can do is help. We didn’t create it, we don’t need to own it, and we don’t want to own it, but we need to be responsive to what’s going on. And that’s what we are looking at, ways we can, through debt relief, and financial support, and openness to trade, give them a chance, because it is most likely to be reversed if their aspirations are not fulfilled, and they do all this, and they try, and then life gets worse. That’s the recipe for regressing back to some dictator or foreign intervention. So I think it’s our duty, as difficult as our own economic situations are now, to do what we can to help it succeed, because that, it’s hard to explain this to the public sometimes, but that is really in our long term interest. I mean as stable -- just take Egypt and Tunisia that are functioning and producing and buying exports and providing investment opportunities, which is not unimaginable -- that would be in our direct economic interest as well as obviously strategic interest so I think there’s something to be hopeful about there too even if we also see the risks.

Question: Have you talked with Jimenez about Syria and Lebanon?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: The Secretary has consistently been in very close touch with her about both of those situations. I think we are all grappling with real dilemmas in Syria. We have been clear. President Obama articulated our view when he said that President Assad needs to undertake reforms or get out of the way. With each passing day and week, it is more and more clear that he is not undertaking reforms and that leaves the other option. We support sanctions which we have already agreed, just as the EU has, in terms of asset freezes and visa bans, we’ve been in very close touch with the Spanish government and Sr. Jimenez about this as well. We are very much on the same page with Spain and with the European Union and we’ll continue to press the Syrian government to end the violence and repression against unarmed demonstrations that we’ve seen. I don’t pretend that we have easy answers, but we do believe the international community should be on record and there should be consequences to governments that behave in such a way.

Question: I would like to ask you about the markets and the way they are behaving today. Do you think that the European Union is taking the right steps to solve this situation? Because it doesn’t look like it’s working, and how do you feel about the critics on the rating agencies?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Well one thing I don’t do is talk about markets or rating agencies. But I can say in general terms, as I already said, we think this is largely a European issue to be dealt with in the lead by Europeans, the European Union, the European Central bank, member states of the European Union, and then obviously the member states who are having the most economic difficulties. The only direct U.S. role is through the IMF, and we have been supportive of IMF funding for those countries that have needed new lending, and we’ll continue to be. Beyond that, we have also said we’re supportive of the measures a number of governments have put in place to reduce their deficits and debt, which just seems obvious as a necessary factor to deal with the debt problem and to restore competitiveness. Beyond that, it really isn’t for us to comment on size of bailout packages or any other of the details. We’re supporting the reform measures that the governments are undertaking to get their deficits under control and restore competitiveness; we are supportive of the international efforts by the international European institutions to get through this crisis.

Question: I would like to know about your opinion about two issues. One of them is Afghanistan – some people in Spain are saying that Spain needs to put an end to the mission now, from the moment that President Obama said that the mission is over. And the other question is about the economic situation in the United States. Some people are saying that the economy is weak, that the economic team in the government is weakening.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: On Afghanistan, just to be very clear, President Obama certainly hasn’t said that the mission is over. He’s been very consistent since he came to office in underscoring the priority, underscoring the need for more resources, which he put in. People sometimes forget the first surge, which was 30,000 in the first month that he was in office. And then a year later, he announced that we would be putting in another, what ended up being close to 40,000, bringing the total over 100,000, precisely because he was determined to succeed. And he felt that in order to transition to Afghan security lead, we really needed to provide more security and increase Afghan’s capacity. And I would just say we’re on track. When he put in the most recent surge troops, he said he hoped to begin a responsible, conditions-based withdrawal in the summer of 2011, the summer of 2011 has come, and he announced that we would be beginning the removal of some 10,000 of those troops this summer, with the hope that all 30,000 of the most recent wave could be taken out by next year, and again next year depending on the evolution of conditions. But we have also reminded our partners that, because we increased our troops by a much greater proportion than most others, we expect the entire alliance to continue to provide the necessary troops to ensure that this transition is successful. So I don’t think we should be expecting everyone to be reducing by the same proportions as the United States has given the vastly greater proportional increases the United States made. And if countries agree to do that -- and again, we appreciate what Spain has done in that regard -- we believe that this transition can be a successful one, so that we can all largely withdraw our forces from Afghanistan. That would be a collective success, and that’s why we need to continue to do this together as an alliance.

You mentioned U.S. economic challenges. I mentioned them myself. I mean, it’s the context for all of this. We face big economic challenges that are somewhat different from European ones, but similar in other regards, and as we speak, the President is in detailed talks with Congress about a long-term deficit reduction plan, which we know is necessary to keep our debt under control so that we don’t face the problems that would come from that. We’re having a vigorous democratic debate about precisely how to deal with that situation, but I think the President has been clear all along. In the first instance, he wanted to make sure that this financial challenge didn’t become anything like a depression, which we think it could have without the government spending that he authorized and supported. But he also made clear that that spending would have to be followed by a long-term plan to get the deficit and the debt under control; that’s what we’re working on now.

Question: After the Obama announcement about the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the violence has increased. Do you think that Afghanistan is a new Vietnam for the United States? Another question is about the transatlantic relations, between the United States and the European states, NATO. Is more European implication necessary in the military operations? What do you think about this?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Well, to pull that all together, no, I don’t think it’s another Vietnam, and I could spend a lot of time talking about the differences, but one of them is the one you mentioned, the Alliance is doing the Afghanistan mission. I don’t remember 46,000 NATO troops in Vietnam, and I don’t remember a transatlantic consensus on Vietnam as we have in Afghanistan. I mean, Afghanistan, it’s actually quite astonishing the degree to which we are pursuing the same strategy with participation of all the Allies. And we fully understand that there is a lot of …

Question: …Missions. Different missions?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: No, no, there actually aren’t. There was for a considerable amount of time a separate American counterterrorism operation from the main NATO mission. Over time, that has evolved to the point of NATO doing, as NATO, the core mission in Afghanistan, of providing security and training. And as I say, every single member of NATO is contributing in one way or another, in some cases with several thousand troops, bringing it to a total of, I think, 46-47,000. Again, the Ambassador was just there and may elaborate on this, for free. So I think it has been quite -- and the support for the President’s speech and approach from the European allies has been very solid, and my discussions on the subject here in Madrid underscore that as well. So I think that’s one of many differences with Vietnam, but it’s a critical one, because we believe -- and this actually describes our foreign policy in general -- that our chances of success are vastly greater if we’re doing it multilaterally with allies. And we’re certainly doing Afghanistan multilaterally with allies.

Question: Our President’s term is coming to an end. Could you comment on the collaboration, or non-collaboration, of the Spanish government with the United States over these years, and could you say which areas could we see improvement in this collaboration?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Well I think, what I began with sort of speaks for itself on that subject. It’s not for me to comment on what relations were with the previous American administration, but I can only talk about this one. And I think I already said, as I talk about the things we care most about, our cooperation has been excellent, and as I said, I think that speaks for itself. And you can make any contrasts you want, but we’re very satisfied with the degree to which we’re working with the Spanish government on all of these challenges.

Ambassador Solomont: I would just add that, on major challenges on which we work in partnership with Spain, Spain’s involvement is supported across the political spectrum, and by both the government as well as the major opposition. And so with respect to Afghanistan, with respect to Libya, in our posture towards Iran – I can go down the list – I think there’s an alignment of interest which is driving this better, and those interests are seen in similar light between both the government and the opposition, and the only way to have a strong and true partnership is when it is based upon mutual self-interest of each party. And even in some areas where we may have some differences, we have actually worked fairly cooperatively.

Question: [Inaudible] two weeks, three weeks ago, Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense, criticized the poor collaboration of many countries, among them Spain, in NATO, or in Libya. In talking about [inaudible] the Spanish government left Kosovo without any alert to the Allies. [Inaudible} in my opinion, the collaboration is not as rosy as politicians usually say it is.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: I wouldn’t put it that way, that the cooperation is not what we would like. First of all, I think former Secretary Gates spoke as a committed transatlanticist, someone who spent his entire career focused on Europe and working with Europe as part of the NATO alliance. And he spoke with a bit of regret that Europeans – and he also spoke as someone responsible for defense issues, and was therefore focused on the military contributions that allies were making to collective efforts. Would the United States like to see greater military contributions from European allies on the missions we are collectively undertaking? Yes. And I could give a long statement as well as how I’d like to see more trainers for Afghanistan, including from Spain, some more troops for Afghanistan, more troops in the Balkans, and an end of the gradual cutbacks we’ve seen in Bosnia and Kosovo, more strike aircraft for Libya, more intelligence and surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft for Libya. I could give you a very long list of where we would like to see more military contributions from Europeans. That’s not complaining about the lack of collaboration. I mean the point, in fact, is because we’re doing so much together and in the same strategy, that the demands are great for assets and contributions. For a long time, the United States has pressed Allies, and I won’t deny that our administration has done so too. We would like to see more. But I think you need to distinguish that from having a different strategy or different ambitions or a real problem or a lack of transparency or collaboration. I’m sure Europeans could come up with a list of things they would like to see us do more of, and sometimes they do, and we hear from them. But again, that’s an important distinction between some lack of collaboration and simply a desire that our Allies do as much as they can for these common missions. And we would, we would like to see more in all of these cases. I carry that message with me where I go, too. We’re concerned about people cutting too much in the Balkans. We’re concerned that people keep up their efforts in Afghanistan; even while we’re grateful for what they’re doing, we want to see more. We need to sustain the Libya [inaudible]. So I think that’s how you square that.

Question: Since Obama took office three years ago, we are witnessing a sort of power shift in the world, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. I think we have China as an economic power in the world; we have American powers as well. I think that American Foreign Policy is increasingly focused on the Pacific as well. I would like to know—how do you see Europe’s role in the world in 20 years?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: I was all ready for that until you added the 20 years part. Well, that’s actually a good -- If I might turn it into the final question, because it would allow me to make a comprehensive point I think is worth making. That there are emerging powers in the world that are important is undeniable. And that we’re paying very close attention to them is also undeniable. It would be strategically misguided for the American President not to be focused on China, and India, and Brazil, and Turkey. So he thinks a lot about those places, and he travels to them, and it’s important to us. But rather than making Europe less important, or Allies like Spain less important, it actually, in a way, makes them more important, because in such a world, we know that we can’t deal with these problems alone. Problems like the Iranian proliferation challenge, or stabilizing Afghanistan, or curbing terrorism, or Libya. And so, when you ask the question: how do we deal with those things or how do we manage a world in which China is rising or India is rising, the answer is, usually, well, you work with the Europeans. And that’s what we do, and that’s what I’m here for. And it makes Europe more important rather than less. And I think that’s how, you know, the President views the world, and why he has so many intensive discussions with European partners and why Secretary Clinton is constantly in touch with her European partners and constantly meeting with them, as she will once again on Friday in Istanbul. So Europe shouldn’t worry about its place with the United States. It’s a critical place. These are the Allies that share our values and our interests and have the capacity to help us deal with these problems and so, so long as there are challenges in the world, I think our need for Europe is going to be very strong.

Ambassador Solomont: I’m going to let the Assistant Secretary go. He has some ongoing things.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: With apologies, but I do appreciate people taking the time and hope that I have somewhat answered some of your questions. I don’t know, Alan, if you’re going to stay on.

Ambassador Solomont: If you had a question or two about Afghanistan, and if you don’t, I won’t take offense.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Thanks very much.

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