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Diplomacy in Action

The Transatlantic Trends 2012

Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
German Marshall Fund
Washington, DC
September 12, 2012


Well, thanks for that, Ivan, Enders, and for having me here. It’s always nice to be back at GMF. I think this is the fourth time I’ve done a comment on Transatlantic Trends. I did the first one in Paris, and I’ve been back here every year since and it’s always interesting to see the results and to comment on them. It’s also nice to see a lot of old friends and diplomatic colleagues in the room.

What I’d like to do is maybe share a couple of reactions, interpretations, and then open it up for questions – we’ll have a little bit of time.

I wanted to begin, though, by making a brief statement on the attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi. It’s obviously first and foremost in the minds of everyone at the State Department today.

You heard the President and the Secretary, I’m sure, who addressed this and condemned in the strongest possible terms this really outrageous and unwarranted attack, and I want to say here, and I see a lot of diplomatic colleagues in the room, we really appreciate what a lot of European leaders have said in support of the United States.

On the data, there is much to be gratified about. First and foremost, and actually, you know, the solidarity expressed in these statements on Benghazi fits with what I’m about to say about the overall perspective which is that we have the feeling that Europeans are with us and I think when you look at the numbers that Ivan just presented that comes across quite clearly.

You looked at the numbers on support for President Obama’s handling of international affairs which is, as you said, Ivan, “down to 71 percent” whereas it peaked at 84 percent and dropped a couple of points each year since then -- it’s still actually a remarkable number, that any leader anywhere could get 71 percent, I think they would be pleased with, and what I think that underscores is, that this wasn’t just an initial burst of what you called “Oba-mania,” but a consistent and sustained reaction to what the United States has been trying to do in the world, in particular with our European allies.

I would also underscore, and the numbers on not just support for President Obama’s handling of international affairs - but for U.S. leadership in the world -- I think with majorities expressing support for that consistently over these four years -- I think sends the same message, and I’d like to say, and I’d like to believe, that it’s not just a coincidence but the result of our deliberate efforts to strengthen the partnership with Europe, to work with Europeans, and to make clear that we understand that to deal with the problems that we face in the world we need strong partners who share our values, have resources to bring to the table, who think like we do about international affairs and I think the GMF Transatlantic Trends numbers underscore that the Europeans fit that bill.

As you know, and I’ve said here before, we constantly from the start invested in this relationship. Secretary Clinton as of today has made 35 separate trips to Europe during the course of her tenure, many of them to coordinate with Europeans on global issues -- whether it’s Afghanistan, Libya, Iran, Syria. She’s visited 28 countries across Europe -- and many multiple times -- and I think that some of what you see in the belief in the relationship is a result of that deliberate, sustained and focused engagement. The President himself has been to Europe ten times. He makes multiple calls to European leaders to coordinate, again, on these same issues and on the financial questions, video conferences -- and again, we’d like to believe that these numbers reflect a very deliberate investment on behalf of this administration in what we believe to be an absolutely essential partnership.

I think it’s also relevant to put this in the context of some of the talk that is around about a so-called pivot to Asia and some of the questions that have been raised about whether this means the United States is distracted or looking elsewhere. It was interesting to note, as Ivan flagged, that the numbers this year are back to underscoring that Americans think Europe is more important than Asia, and Europeans, the majority think the United States is more important than Asia. This is not a competition and I don’t think it’s a zero sum game, but I do think without reading too much into those numbers that underscores what we believe, which is that people on both sides of the Atlantic recognize that the other side of the Atlantic is absolutely critical to their national interests and security.

We certainly believe that about Europeans, and that’s one of the things I’ve tried to say, and we’ve tried to convey to them -- that their partnership with us on global issues, that their security, and their economy, as our biggest trade and investment partner is absolutely essential to us, and I think our importance to Europeans goes without saying, but it’s also manifested in the degree to which we are critical to their economy and to their security, and by our enduring security partnership and military presence, even after the completion of the changes to our global strategic defense posture, we’ll still have more troops in Europe than we will in Asia or anywhere else and that’s because we’re committed to European security and because we’re committed to partnership with Europeans. Indeed, a significant justification of the troops in Europe is not just to protect Europe, but to perform that training and that partnership function because of how much we do together.

I’ll just briefly underscore the degree to which I think Europeans are fulfilling that function as our key global partner -- I don’t need to go into a huge amount of details, but it’s worth flagging because it is also a reflection of the numbers that you see and the reason why we think this partnership is so important, and I’ve said before and I can say now even three and a half years into this administration, I think our strategic alignment with Europeans on these questions is greater than ever.

I’ll just take some of the big questions that are out there. On Iran, we really do have the same policy -- we’re pursuing it together -- what Europeans have done in aligning their approach with ours over the past couple of years has been very impressive. Europeans now, the European Union having a full and total embargo on petroleum products imported from Iran was, I think, beyond what many would have believed possible a couple of years ago, but they, like we, are convinced that the only way to get Iran to be serious about the talks -- and we’re also serious about that piece of our approach to Iran, we’re ready to negotiate on the nuclear issue -- the only way to get them seriously back to the table is to put pressure on, and Europeans are doing that, very much in conjunction with us --we’re on the same page.

On Syria, it’s a current big challenge of the day. We’re also coordinating absolutely closely and effectively -- that’s one of the reasons for some of the Secretary’s most recent trips to Europe. We know it’s a tremendous challenge but we’re on the same page -- we all believe that Syria can never be stable under this current regime under Assad. We want to support a political transition; we’re working together on the sanctions, financial and diplomatic pressures to bring that about; we’re working together to coordinate our efforts with the opposition so there’s something that can come in place when Assad does go; we’re pooling our assets in terms of humanitarian assistance to the neighboring states; and while we acknowledge that it’s a challenging issue, the challenge is not transatlantic coordination, we very much are on the same page, and working very closely together.

Afghanistan. There have been nearly 40,000 troops, European troops fighting alongside American troops in Afghanistan for a decade now. I know people always look for differences and want to focus on timetables of withdrawal and what the differences are. To me the overwhelming message at the NATO Summit was not differences among allies, but rather the absolute commitment -- “in together out together” -- that was demonstrated by those allies. At the Lisbon Summit we all agreed on what that timetable was for the 2014 transition to full Afghan authority, that was reiterated in Chicago by all the Allies, and what’s much more impressive than any withdrawals or precipitated withdrawals is the fact that pretty much -- to an ally -- all of the NATO members have committed to that; are keeping their troops; agreed on the 2013 milestone, agreed on very significant financing of Afghan National Security Forces after 2014 which is the way we’re going to make this work, so that there can be security in Afghanistan after we leave, so I think that’s the story when it comes to Afghanistan. And other aspects of that NATO Summit that the President hosted in Chicago, also underscored the depth of transatlantic cooperation commitments that were made on what we call smart defense -- with Baltic Air Policing, so that we’re working together to provide security for some allies without them having to spend money that they can put to use in other areas, -- Alliance Ground Surveillance, pooling our assets so that we have greater capabilities for intelligence -- these are also critically important positive steps that came out of the Chicago Summit.

And while I’m on the subject of NATO, Libya itself we think was yet another example of how we can count on each other when it comes to security challenges that we face. There was great discussion of a particular approach to Libya, and what role the United States would play -- we discussed that here and elsewhere, and I don’t need to go into all the details here, but suffice it to say once we collectively agreed that action was necessary, the United States put forward the unique capabilities that it had; made clear it wanted to see the Europeans play a major role in the operation because they were among the strongest proponents of action; they did so; and we found that Europeans, even with their limited military capabilities that we’re constantly focused on bolstering, were able to make absolutely essential contributions to a successful operation to uphold UN Security Council resolutions; get rid of a dictator; and give that country hope for the future, so I think all of that reflects what I’m gratified to see our publics seem to understand, which is that both sides appreciate the role of the other.

Transatlantic Trends this year added a Russian dimension, which I think is worth highlighting. I think that’s an excellent idea, because Russia is such an important piece of this overall puzzle -- there too, especially without previous numbers to compare it to, I wouldn’t want to infer too much or draw too many conclusions, but I think there are a couple of things that struck me. It is notable that more than 50 percent of Russians, or 50 percent of Russians surveyed, have a favorable opinion of the United States -- that’s not bad under the circumstances -- I think if you compare it to previous polling, not by Transatlantic Trends, but other polls, just before this administration took office, I think the number of negative Russian opinion of the United States was in the upper 60s, once again, I’d like to assert that I don’t think that’s a coincidence -- it’s part of the deliberate effort that we have undertaken to increase trust and cooperation with Russia.

It’s been absolutely clear from the start that we have significant and enduring differences, people know what those are. They include our real differences on Georgia; include our differences on the principle of NATO enlargement; include our differences on missile defense. We’ve been very clear about our disagreement with some recent domestic developments in Russia where human rights and democracy are concerned, and obviously on Syria we have differences, as well -- we’ve never hidden that -- we’ve been clear about all of those from the start. But we’ve also believed and the President has also believed and made very clear that we have common interests with Russia. We believe it’s in both countries’ interests to pursue them, and we have a pretty good track record of getting real things done, whether it’s in the field of strategic arms control, cooperation on Afghanistan, tough UN Security Council resolutions on Iran, Russian membership in the WTO which is maybe the most recent accomplishment -- and the two aren’t inconsistent and we’ll continue to pursue both at the same time, but I’d like to believe that the approach on focusing on what we can do together in our mutual interests has had some effect on those numbers that you showed, and that the tone of our relationship and the effort to have a pragmatic relationship that works has been understood by the Russian people, and that fifty percent of them have a favorable opinion of the United States may indeed result in part from our investment in that relationship.

Maybe I’ll just end with a brief word about the eurozone and economic issues, which again, I think were highlighted in your report, and it would be negligent not to bring up an issue that has been so dominant in the relationship and in Europe. We have made clear, the President has said many times how invested we are in Europe’s economy -- I mean that in a literal sense, because it is our biggest mutual investment partner, our biggest trade partner, and we have a fundamental national interest in seeing Europe’s economy succeed. But it goes beyond just our own economic interest, it is the continent, these are the countries we partner with when it comes to overseas development assistance; these are the countries we partner with, as I already stressed quite clearly, that we partner with in terms of global security. That doesn’t work unless Europeans have the resources to do it, and there too I would say the story -- and people are looking for consequences of the eurozone and this partnership -- I think it’s actually more impressive how much we’ve continued to do together in the security field given the economic crisis than any notion that it has somehow interfered with our ability to do so. That in the face of these genuine economic troubles we’ve been able to sustain our work together in Afghanistan, that we were able to conduct the operation in Libya, that we’re taking very tough and even yes, costly decisions on Iran sanctions, that hurt the bottom line in some export sectors because of our commitment to strategic cooperation -- that actually says a lot about that commitment. So yes, we have a huge interest in getting the economy back on track which will facilitate this cooperation but it’s worth underscoring that it has gone ahead, even in the face of these enormous economic challenges.

We’re encouraged by some of the progress that Europeans have made in recent months including some significant steps even in the past couple of weeks that might have seemed out of reach just a couple of years ago.

So how do we put this all together? Obviously a lot of issues, and I did want to leave some time for discussion, so I would just end by going back to where I began: I think -- it is our belief that the United States and Europe are more strategically aligned, arguably than they have ever been. It’s our belief that that is in part a function of our deliberate investment in that relationship because of how much we count on Europeans. I think that now that I’m doing this for the fourth time and we’ve got some numbers to look at over a period of time, it’s safe to say that it’s not a blip, it wasn’t driven by any one factor or speech or incident that happened before the 2009 survey, but rather it’s a sustained reflection of the fundamental mutual interest that the two sides, and the fundamental commitment that we in the United States and the Obama administration have made in this essential partnership.

So, why don’t I stop with that and look forward to questions and comments from the room.

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