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Diplomacy in Action

Media Roundtable in London

Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
London, United Kingdom
January 9, 2013


Date: 01/09/2013 Description: Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, Philip H. Gordon speaks with journalists in London; January 09, 2013.  - State Dept Image

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Thanks very much, and again my apologies for keeping you waiting. It’s nice to see you.

I am delighted to be back in London where I’m going to have consultations with representatives from the British Government on a wide range of issues, as is our wont. We’re obviously in very close touch with our U.K. counterparts, but it had been a while since I had been in London and I wanted to come here and get a feel for the debates going on and British perspectives on a wide range of things.

Just a quick trip to Europe this week. I was in The Hague yesterday and I’m on my way to Dublin where we have every six months consultations with European Union representatives -- all the political directors come together, USEU political dialogue, again, on the full range of issues.

I guess that’s the point I’d stress to begin is the degree to which we feel we are well coordinated with Europeans in general, and with the British in particular, on global issues.

You may have seen the speech Secretary Clinton gave at the Brookings Institution a couple of weeks ago on this, and I refer you to it if you haven’t, but it really sums up, and I think underscores the degree to which we have become so strategically aligned with our European partners and again with our, in particular, with our British partners. This applies to Iran, where you now have a full EU oil embargo in place and where the E3+3 is coordinating very closely on both tracks of our policy, increasing pressure on Iran but also intensifying our diplomatic engagement toward a diplomatic solution.

On Afghanistan, where in the wake of the Chicago Summit we’ve agreed on the 2013 milestone where Afghans will be in the lead and the end of combat operations by 2014, and very significant financial pledges for Afghan National Security Forces after 2014. On Libya, where we performed together a successful NATO operation and are now coordinating closely on follow up. On Syria which remains a tremendous challenge, obviously, but on which we are very much aligned when it comes to policy of insisting that the Assad regime must go, that there be a political transition, that the opposition be coordinated, and that’s something, again, we’ve worked closely with our British counterparts in bringing about, and in providing significant humanitarian assistance to Syrians.

I could go on, but my point is on all of these issues the United States and the United Kingdom are very much in line and working very closely together.

The same is true on a range of European issues. I know the debate about the EU here goes on, and is very significant. And one reason I wanted to be here is to hear from British counterparts about it, but I will have extensive discussions with my counterparts on that as well, both here in London and with European counterparts in Dublin. But there are big issues, obviously, in the Balkans on which we’re coordinating closely together; Ukraine; Russia -- and I can elaborate a bit more on that if you have questions about it in terms of the U.S.-Russia relationship -- but again, my point to kick off is really the degree to which we and our European partners and our British partners are very much in sync.

The last point I’ll just mention is economic cooperation. Again, I [inaudible] Secretary Clinton’s speech where you will see that she addressed the issue of expanding transatlantic trade and investment, which is already the greatest of any two groups in the world, but we all have an interest in expanding that even further. As you know, the President is considering proposals from a high level working group on jobs and growth that was created between the United States and the EU after a U.S.-EU Summit that would look at the question of a comprehensive trade and investment agreement between Europe and the United States, and we hope, regardless of the final recommendation that goes to the President, his decision, that we will use this coming period to further expand our cooperation in those areas.

Europe needs growth in jobs, we need growth in jobs, and this is an area we think could be promising to mutually develop our economies at a difficult period.

Let me just stop with that because I know you have lots of issues on your mind and I’m happy to respond to any of them.

Question: There is serious discussion [inaudible] about leaving the European Union or scaling down very considerably the political [inaudible]. Can you tell us what your perspective is on that and what message you are delivering to British officials on that subject?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Sure. We’ve obviously been following this very closely and have for a long time. Obviously this is a question for the British people and the British Government to define their relationship with the European Union. All we can say from an American perspective is what we’ve said before which is that we value a strong European Union. As I indicated in my opening remarks, Europe in general and the EU in particular is such a critical partner for the United States on all of these global issues, and therefore, we also value a strong U.K. voice in that European Union. Britain is such a special partner of the United States that shares our values, shares our interests, has significant resources to bring to the table, more than most others. Its voice within the European Union is essential and critical for the United States, so there are a lot of, inevitably, technical and detailed issues that have to be sorted out for every member of the European Union as it moves forward, but as a broad and general thing we value a strong U.K. voice in a strong European Union.

Question: Some of the Euro skeptics say we could have [inaudible] closer relationship with the United States as a separate entity. What would be your answer to that?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: I wouldn’t underestimate the increasing weight of the EU in the world. Again, this is a long-evolving and gradual process, and nobody ever expects that national foreign policies will disappear or bilateral relationships, foreign policy relationships with the United States will disappear, but it is nonetheless the case that over time the European Union as an institution has gained an increasing voice -- you’ve seen the way that Secretary Clinton and High Representative Ashton work together, including most recently a joint trip they took together to the Balkans. But well beyond the Europe issues, they coordinate closely on all of the issues I mentioned -- Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Middle East, Israel, Egypt, and so on. And when Europeans put their resources together and have a collective decision-making function they end up playing a major role in the world. Again, it doesn’t overshadow national perspectives and it doesn’t make them disappear and there are still foreign policies and foreign ministers in all of these countries that also have an important voice and a particular voice with the United States and differentiated voices. But I think that is just a reality in the world in which we live, and for the U.K. to be a part of that stronger, more important voice in the world is something I know a lot of British people welcome, and from an American perspective we certainly welcome the British voice in that EU.

Question: Just following up from Lindsey’s question, is the corollary of what you’re saying, Mr. Gordon, is that if the U.K. does leave the EU, then its views will have less resonance in Washington and we’d actually perhaps lose what influence it has in Washington if it becomes just an off-shore island.

Can I ask a second question if I may? Does Syria come under you at all? You’re liaising on Syria, I gather.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: We work very closely with Europeans on Syria --

Question: On Syria, I know the common stand is that Assad must go, but it’s now been 22 months since the revolution began on the ground, and we’ve seen for ourselves in places like Aleppo, there hasn’t really been much movement since last summer. So is this policy that Assad must go, going to become less tenable if the stalemate continues?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Is what going to be less tenable? Sorry.

Question: The demand that Assad must go.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Two very different things. On the first, again, I’ll leave it to the British Government and the British people to conclude what sort of relationship they want with the EU and what that means for their relationship with Washington. Britain will, of course, always have a particular voice in the United States and a special relationship with the United States, irrespective of its other engagements throughout the world. That’s not in doubt. Beyond that, I think I’ve already stated the general principle that the European Union itself has an increasing voice in the world and an increasing partnership with the United States.

On Syria, we do believe that Assad’s fall is inevitable. I think the international community gave him ample time to reform, to listen to his people, and to find a way forward in which he could continue to play some role or remain in power. And it was not just the view of the United States, but pretty much the entirety, with a few notable exceptions, of the international community that he had squandered that opportunity, and the only way that Syria can have a peaceful, stable future now is for him to step down. That certainly looks like the will of the majority of the people of Syria. It is the view of the dozens and dozens if not more than 100 countries that have called on him to step down, most of whom have recognized the opposition as the legitimate authority in Syria, and it’s definitely the view of the United States, Britain, and other Europeans.

The situation on the ground is evolving and we are confident that over time Assad will lose power and leave power. We share the view that sooner is better than later. There is a very serious humanitarian situation in Syria and with each passing day and week and month, more and more tragedies are taking place. The person most responsible for those tragedies is Mr. Assad himself.

But our approach has consisted of increasing the pressure on that regime -- diplomatic, political, and financial -- which is having a real impact; increasing support for the opposition and trying to coordinate it so that when that day does come that there’s a political transition in Syria, there’s something stable in its wake; and in the meantime, providing humanitarian assistance.

On the diplomatic track we continue to try to work with the UN under Joint Special Representative Brahimi and others, to try to bring about the sort of political transition that key members of the international community including the Permanent Five representatives of the United Nations Security Council agreed in Geneva which was to say there needs to be transitional authority that takes power on the way to a political transition. We have resumed work with Mr. Brahimi, who is in the lead on this. There will be another meeting between the United States, Russia, and the Joint Special Representative this coming week to try to advance that process. We will continue down that diplomatic road to try to bring about this necessary political transition.

Question: Just two things, a small thing following on from Syria. With the weather so bad now in the region, clearly the humanitarian crisis in the surrounding countries around Syria is worsening. Is there any immediate discussion going on about responding to that?

And a larger question, I’m not sure there is a British equivalent to Gerard Depardieu, but relations between the U.S. and Russia, Magnitskiy, the adoption business, rather terse statements from the Russians, particularly on a number of issues. Are we building for a rather chillier relationship in the second Obama term or can a reset of the reset or whatever you now call it?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: On the first point, obviously, we’re following very closely the developments in Syria on the humanitarian front, including issues associated with the weather on a day-to-day basis, and I don’t have anything to report right now, but you can be assured that the people following this on a day-to-day basis are doing everything they can to make sure we’re addressing that and providing all the humanitarian assistance we can as we work more broadly on the real solution which is a political transition.

Russia has been a key aspect of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy in the first term and I’m sure will be in the second as well, and like I noted, I’ll be consulting British counterparts on this in the course of the day.

We are very proud of the agreements we’ve reached with Russia over the course of the past four years which I think are quite considerable as part of this policy that for better or worse became known as the reset. We reached in strategic arms control, a new START Agreement, an agreement to do lethal transit for Afghanistan, a 123 Civil Nuclear Agreement, we got Russian cooperation on issues like North Korea and even more significantly Iran where they voted with us on Security Council Resolution 1929 and have been a key member of the P5+1 diplomatic effort.

The WTO accession of Russia was something we in the United States and others have been working on for 20 years and we finally got that done to the interest of our own firms and we think Russia as well as it joins [inaudible] rule-based international trading system, so we don’t have any doubt that the approach we’ve taken towards Russia, which is trying to identify concrete practical areas of cooperation in our mutual interest is the right one, and we intend to continue down that path.

At the same time we’ve been very clear from the start that the corollary of looking for those practical areas of cooperation was that we would be very clear about our differences; we wouldn’t be shy about articulating them; and we would stand up for our principles and for our allies and for our interests. We’ve done that from the start as well. We’ve had differences over Georgia and its sovereignty and territorial integrity. We’ve been critical of some domestic developments within Russia, and we haven’t been shy about articulating them. We’ve been determined to move ahead on issues like missile defense in Europe which we believe is in our interest and in the interest of our allies, and we’ve looked to cooperate with Russia on that. We’ve also been clear about our determination to protect ourselves from the ballistic missile and nuclear threat, either way.

Most recently, Jonathan, there has been a domestic trend in Russia that we haven’t shied away from criticizing, you mentioned a couple of examples, and There are, alas, others including their NGO laws obliging NGOs that take assistance from abroad to register as foreign agents, which can undermine their work within Russia, the crackdown on protesters and increasing fines for protesters, the most recently Russian response to the Magnitskiy legislation in the United States which was also part of giving Permanent Normal Trade Relations between the United States and Russia so that our firms can benefit from Russia’s WTO accession, Russia responded not only by denying visas to those Americans that they say violated human rights, but also banning NGOs that take money from abroad, from doing any political operations within Russia, and even more unfortunately we believe, abrogating our bilateral adoptions agreement and banning Americans from adopting Russian children. We’ve been very clear that while we want to have a constructive relationship with the Government of Russia we think it is deeply regrettable that they have chosen to respond to what we believe to be legitimate and appropriate legislation, essentially by punishing Russian orphans and the American families that were prepared to provide them loving homes.

There is also the closure of the USAID mission in Moscow which once again is something that we expressed our regret about because of all the good work that it had done over the past 20 years in Russia, ranging from maternal health and tuberculosis issues to developing democracy and rule of law in Russia.

So it is a mixed picture. All we can do moving forward is carry on with the same approach that we articulated at the beginning. We will continue to look for areas of constructive cooperation. There is no reason we won’t find them in the coming period just as we did in the last period. We can and should work together on Afghanistan where we have mutual interests. We can and should develop our economic ties which are underdeveloped and really provide much room for improvement. We should cooperate on missile defense because it’s a mutual interest. Russia is threatened by ballistic missiles and potential nuclear weapons, as we are. Counterterrorism is another common interest. So we’re going to keep a positive agenda and look to work with the Russian Government, but you can be sure that at the same time we’re going to be absolutely clear about our values and our interests and our principles.

Question: One more question about Britain and the EU if I may. Forgive me, I’m going to be very blunt. We need to know whether if we leave the EU we will weaken our relationship with America and diminish our voice in Washington. Would we?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: We’re not in the business of bluntly and directly telling other countries what to do with their foreign policies. I articulated some broad principles in the way we think about these issues. I said that Britain is an important player in the world and certainly a longstanding and important friend of the United States and it always will be. At the same time, we have a growing relationship with the European Union as an institution which has an increasing voice in the world and we want to see a strong British voice in that European Union, that is in the American interest. What is in the British interest is for the British people and British government to decide.

Question: It’s another far-off analogy [inaudible]. The question [inaudible] or likely to be asked by David Cameron, by the government, is [inaudible] referendum and [inaudible] repatriation of [inaudible], a reassessing of the relationship between this country and the EU. But do you share the same views in terms of if we have a different, less powerful relationship, position of Britain within the EU, the same would be true, that that would weaken our ability to keep our voice in the world and our relationship with the U.S.?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: I think that’s the same question which I just answered.

Question: Back to Syria. There was a lot of alarm before Christmas when there were reports that chemical weapons were being moved or mixed. According to the New York Times that was initially spotted or the alarm was raised by Israeli officials. Obviously there’s a lot of skepticism all over the world about the issue of weapons of mass destruction and Syria and so on. Why should we be so alarmed by reports like this? Are you alarmed by them to the extent that you have a red line of intent to use or mixing chemicals or loading chemical weapons onto missiles?

Also if you can touch on the issue of enriched uranium, of which it’s thought Syria has many tons. What is your position is on that.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: We’ve been very clear, we are concerned about the issue of potential chemical weapons use in Syria. You mentioned press reports about one country and being the source. Without getting into any intelligence issues, obviously, lots of countries have means of getting information in Syria and I think it’s fair to say that very many countries are concerned about potential use and specific reports that have emerged recently about preparations and mixing. So it’s certainly not just a single source notion that’s spread around there. I think the United States has been very clear about that, our European partners have been very clear about that, Russia has been very clear about that, and I think we all share the same concern. That would be a significant escalation, already the use of weapons and in particular air power by the regime against civilians has been horrific and has led to, I think the UN estimated recently 60,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of refugees, so already the use of violence in Syria is obviously tragic and condemnable.

The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would indeed cross a further red line and said it would change his calculus in thinking about Syria. So we’ve been pretty clear about how seriously we take this issue.

Question: So it’s the use, it’s not the intent to use, it’s the actual after the event.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: The whole purpose of making clear concern about use is to prevent even thinking about use of chemical weapons or preparing for use. So I’m not going to get into precisely what would trigger what, and [inaudible] we haven’t said and the President [inaudible] addressed, but he has been very clear and our allies have been very clear that this would be a serious escalation and could change the calculus of the international community.

Question: On enriched uranium?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: I’ve seen the same reports that you’re referring to, in particular questions about whether it might be shipped to Iran. Needless to say we would have concerns, given our concerns about the Iranian nuclear program and the Iranian enrichment program and the amount of low or medium enriched uranium in Iran. We would naturally have concerns about any acquisitions from abroad about further uranium in any form.

Question: Can I just take you back to the EU again, just one more thing, which is that David Cameron [inaudible] promised us that he’s going to set out his position on this in the coming weeks, make everything a bit clearer. But we’re probably not looking at a referendum until after the next election in 2015. That uncertainty is something that’s made business very nervous. Is it something that makes you diplomatically nervous? Or would you just urge the U.K. to get on with it and make our mind up about it.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: I can’t speak to the business community, obviously, I’ve followed that debate and discussion. Again, as a general point I would say that we welcome an outward looking European Union with Britain in it. We benefit when the EU is unified, speaking with a single voice, and focused on our shared interests around the world and in Europe.

The more the European Union is focused on its internal debates, the less it is able to be our unified partner abroad and I’m not going to imagine that the European Union will ever get beyond any internal debates, just as the United States or any institution continually is reviewing its internal structures and its institutions and so on.

But it is best for everyone, we think, when leaders have the time and ability to focus on our common challenges abroad, rather than spending their time on internal workings and just getting up to the Lisbon Treaty was a massive internal project, not just the Lisbon Treaty but a number of historical periods have seen Europeans be inevitably inward looking. The negotiations of the Maastricht Treaty, other treaty revisions, referenda on ratifying those treaties have sometimes turned countries inward and I guess that would be fair to say that every hour at an EU Summit spent debating the institutional makeup of the European Union is one less hour spent talking about how we can solve our common challenges of jobs, growth, and international peace around the world.

Question: Can I just take you up on that. I don’t want to appear a Euro skeptic.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: I thought that was a good answer. [Laughter].

Question: That was a great answer. I’m sure if I was in your position I’d give exactly the same answer.

Are you really -- the trouble is that viewed from a very narrow foreign policy and sort of pol/mil sort of perspective, Europe seems to offer far less as a whole than it does individually. The key players diplomatically and militarily are a very small group of countries who actually have ambitions in the world, who have a history of engagement, who have to some extent military resources at their disposal to deploy. Most of Europe amounts to very little internationally.

Why then do you hold so strongly to the line that you were just putting out? Why does it really matter to the United States? Isn’t Britain, Germany, France and whoever a strong enough international voice in crises? We talk of the 3+3. That isn’t the EU, it’s six sovereign countries. [Inaudible] being difficult, but --

Assistant Secretary Gordon: The countries you mentioned and others are and always will be major players and major friends and partners of the United States with a big voice that we listen to. Once again, I think it’s easy to caricature this debate as one or the other, are you going to be dealing with countries or are you going to be dealing with the EU? And that’s just always been a false debate. Even I think the most ambitious proponents of the European Union don’t imagine that now or any time in the near or even distant future you’ll get to the point where the countries that you mentioned don’t play.

So absolutely, the biggest and most prosperous and most populous countries in Europe have a more prominent voice than others. Britain, in particular, like I’ve said many times, will always have a particular role -- it has interests around the world, it has relationships around the world, has a special relationship with us and will always have a distinctive voice in Washington, so let’s be careful not to say it’s one or the other. What I’m saying is in addition to that, this European Union has an increasing role to play.

Just to take one example that I already mentioned, the EU oil embargo on Iran. That’s the institution as itself that has decided it as policy. Now there are no outs. Every member of the European Union is bound by that because it was agreed by the whole, and when an economic bloc of the size of the European Union makes a decision like that, given energy imports, it has a real impact, so we’re not overstating it, we’re not saying that this means that national foreign policies go away, but increasingly it does matter.

Question: A quick question on Russia and Syria. Do you detect any signs of Russia changing its approach towards Syria? And are you at all optimistic of reaching an accommodation with the Russians on that subject?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: I wouldn’t want to overstate prospects. I dare even say regrettably we haven’t seen a significant evolution in the Russian approach. We would like to see Russia come on board for what we believe would be the implementation of the Geneva Agreement, which is a transitional authority given full executive power in Syria as part of a political transition.

Now we welcome the fact that they have resumed meeting with us and the United Nations. Foreign Minister Lavrov joined Secretary Clinton and JSR Brahimi in Dublin on the margins of the OSCE Ministerial for a first meeting, and then Deputy Secretary Burns, Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov and Brahimi have met since and will meet again. So we welcome that process. We need to be working with Russia and the rest of the international community toward these goals. I don’t want to overstate the degree to which that means Russia is on board with us. I hope it means they realize that whatever their preferences might have been, there is going to be a political transition in Syria and it’s in their interest to help us shape it in a positive way that is in our common interest.

Question: [Inaudible] chemical weapons. I seem to recall that after President Obama talked about the red line, Hillary Clinton did the same at the Foreign Ministers meeting in Brussels. Mr. Panetta in the following weeks, in fact, not quite the same words but he seemed to imply the threat has dissipated somewhat. The reports of the use of chemical weapons, [inaudible] have been making against the regime have so far proved to be untrue. What’s the U.S. position or the U.S. apprehension about not the regime using it but the jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusrah who you have described as a terrorist organization, getting hold of this in this state of flux? Is that almost that much of a concern as the regime using it or even more so or less so?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Without comparing them it is indeed a concern -- our concern is the use of chemical weapons, the transfer of chemical weapons from a secure site to anyone who might be in a position to use them for any reason, so we have a range of concerns. I don’t want to calibrate whether the risk has gone up or down. Hopefully the clarity of the international community that this really is a red line has made clear to the government that it would be making a grave mistake if it used or prepared to use chemical weapons. But we remain vigilant because they’re still there in great numbers and we are vigilant not just about use by the government but about any risks that they could end up in the wrong hands which would be equally dramatic.

Question: Can I ask just one tiny thing, which is which Ministers are you meeting here in Britain, if you are allowed to tell us that?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Sure, the schedule is evolving. I’ll meet the Minister for Europe David Lidington; I will meet Ivan Rogers in Number 10 who is preparing G8 issues and EU; I have a meeting with the Political Director that is evolving; and perhaps others in the course of the day.

Moderator: Thank you, everyone.

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