MODERATOR: Okay, we’ll do this on background. This is the last one of the day. The Secretary speaks at 9:30. So I asked [Senior State Department Official] just to give an overview of the meetings he’s had – we’ve been in several of them together – what he feels like he’s accomplished. And I think – I know, Joel, you had a couple Europe questions yesterday which inspired this backgrounder.
So do you want to open with anything? And then we can just jump in.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, just to say I’ve been to a number of these Munich Security Conferences. This is the third one in a row, and then it was certainly used prior. It’s a useful forum, of course, for the kind of multilats, some would say diplomatic speed dating, that lets you deal with a lot of things, not just transatlantic European issues but really in a global context.
And of course, that’s what most of our conversations with the Europeans have been certainly in the bilats the Secretary has had here. You’re familiar with his schedule. And President Maas he’s in touch with regularly. They had a very good bilat yesterday that included Maas but as well as his advisors, Jens Ploetner, who has been to Tehran recently, so they were able to cover the big areas that they deal with.
A lot of interest in Afghanistan, of course, certainly where things are going with Iraq, the NATO look at what more can NATO do in the Middle East in terms of the Iraq mission and other things. That’s made a lot of progress. You probably saw the statements out of the defense ministerial, of course, prior to the Munich Security Conference.
And similar conversations with the Czechs and the Croatians – foreign ministers – with whom the Secretary met. The Croatians, of course, presidency of the European Council of this semester, the first time for them, and that actually the foreign minister started out by talking about the context of that and said who would have believed 30 years ago that we, Croatia, would be a member of NATO, a member of the European Union, and hold the presidency of the European Council, and thanked the United States for all our support in going through that.
Since we talk about Croatia, this brings us to Balkans, which has actually been a fairly robust topic here, and I’ve had a number of bilats and a couple more to go today. I saw President Vucic of Serbia, and then I saw Dukanovic of Montenegro, and I’ll see President Thaci of Kosovo and the new prime minister, Albin Kurti, of Kosovo later today.
We had a big roundtable last night that was put together by the Munich Security Conference and the East-West Center on Balkans, and it was remarkable to see just what the – the sort of stampede to get into it was, probably about eight heads of state or government, foreign ministers, as well as a big crowd. So still a lot of focus on the Balkans.
And it was interesting, again, just to personalize the context, they talked about Rambouillet, which, of course, was the French-sponsored peace conference that the Contact Group and Quint participated in to try to prevent the Kosovo war that ultimately ended up in a NATO air campaign. That was 21 years ago, also over Valentine’s Day, so I said I feel like my life has come full circle.
But the U.S. engagement there, despite some of the usual, “Oh, the U.S. has pulled out of engaging in multilateral fora,” it’s a great case study. Because I – before the position on what do you base that? We’re the only country that has major missions, assistance programs, military engagement if you look at KFOR, throughout the Western Balkans. We have not one but two special envoys, Special Presidential Envoy Ambassador Grenell, who is focusing on the Serbia-Kosovo peace, and the Secretary’s Special Representative for the Western Balkans Matt Palmer, who is engaging with his counterparts.
So why don’t I let you go to your questions and what you’re particularly focused on today.
QUESTION: Two. Starting with the French, Macron gave a speech last week where he mentioned that our norms cannot be controlled by the United States, to build the Europe of tomorrow our norms cannot controlled by the United States. Of course, he mentioned then also China and Russia.
But what are you seeing from him and what are you hearing around the conference about the French trying to lead Europe in some sort of different strategic direction perhaps post-(inaudible), (inaudible) post-Brexit? Is that causing any friction between the U.S. and France in terms of strategic cooperation?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I can’t say France has come up in any of the bilateral meetings that I’ve participated in. So that’s a simple answer to that. This conference is also useful for some people to get headlines. That’s what they’re looking for. That’s what you’re looking for. I’m going to go to Paris from here and actually have a number of talks with the French and maybe understand what it is they’re trying to get out in statements like that.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: That wasn’t me.
MODERATOR: Somebody note for the transcript. Go ahead, Nick.
QUESTION: On the Balkans issue, do you have a sense of timing for when these – the rail and road and rail links would resume? It still seems like – it seems like signing these agreements but relations between Serbia and Kosovo are obviously still extremely frosty and there’s been no timeline on when that would happen. It still seems like there are a lot of conditions that would need to be met for those links to actually open up. So do you have a sense of timing?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t want to offer any timelines. I don’t know if anybody has a real sense. Some of it has to do with the actual logistics and infrastructure questions to make things like that happen.
I think what’s key here and I know what Rick Grenell has focused on is getting the two sides together to talk about things that avoid the neuralgia, the history, that focus on the practical steps that can actually improve people’s lives, citizens in both Serbia and Kosovo through trade, through commerce, job creation, links. One of the things in the Balkans that’s always been a challenge is transport links, and you look at Serbia, which has tried to focus on their own infrastructure. You’ve got Bechtel, frankly, that happens to be a U.S. company that’s undertaking a major highway project there. They’ve done things in Kosovo. Now it’s just to connect those to facilitate trade and movement.
The Balkan – Western Balkan countries, as you know, have been talking about something they refer to as the “Mini Schengen,” which is to kind of open borders and facilitate movement among – in and among those countries, sort of doing the kinds of things that – among each other that they want to do with Europe as part of their European Union membership aspirations. So I think there’s some interesting steps there, and it’s actually great to see these guys sit down and focus on things where they don’t get caught up in the media arguments of history and the perils of identity politics. Instead, they’re looking at real things that matter to real people.
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], I imagine that the Secretary will probably in his speech at least touch on Huawei and 5G, that kind of thing. But —
MODERATOR: No, we don’t.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No, actually, we don’t.
QUESTION: Oh, you don’t?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No.
MODERATOR: We’ll probably – oops.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I mean, he’s been talking about it for a year and a half, so —
QUESTION: Well, I know. All right.
MODERATOR: I’m sure he will —
QUESTION: Well, so I imagine the Secretary won’t mention 5G – (laughter) – but he has been harping on it ad nauseum on every trip that he’s been on recently. So I’m just curious —
MODERATOR: As did Speaker Pelosi yesterday.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I don’t know if I’d say harping. I’d say issuing warnings to people we care about.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. I mean, the theme —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: All right, ask your question and then I can tell you (inaudible).
QUESTION: Has it come up in your conversations? And because of the British decision, obviously, that happened just before we were in London – when was that —
MODERATOR: Three weeks ago?
QUESTION: A month? And then the EU, the EC – the Germans seems to be going ahead with their kind of version of the British thing. What about the rest of Europe? And then is this coming up in your conversations?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It certainly comes up a bit, and even in the Balkans where there is concern there amongst leaders and observers of the Western Balkans in the influence China can have, because we know they offer cheap money. And it’s enticing to countries that need investment and infrastructure, but it comes at a price, and the Secretary has underscored that. The perhaps most interesting conversation was with the Czech foreign minister, and the Czechs, as you know, have been very forward-leaning on this, hosting the 5G conference.
QUESTION: I’m sorry. This is yesterday?
MODERATOR: Yes. Last night.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Last evening.
MODERATOR: It was their last one. It was a very good conversation.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, it was the last – it was a very good conversation. He’s a really (inaudible).
QUESTION: So they are receptive to your – to the message?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Very much. And they understand the concerns. And if you just look into the facts of Prague-Beijing conversations recently, you’ll see the Chinese have responded to the Czechs’ focus, their concerns about IT infrastructure, about privacy issues, and what it means. And they’ve really stood up to this and taken a real leadership role, and I think they are scheduled – in fact, you mentioned a sort of round two of their conference that focuses on these things.
QUESTION: Okay. That was the only one that you were involved in that —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think it’s come up in every meeting I’ve been in. Perhaps with the Germans —
MODERATOR: I think that the Secretary has brought it up in every single meeting I’ve been in with him that I can remember for the past six months, and I’m not being facetious.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, I’d agree.
MODERATOR: I almost can’t remember – [Senior State Department Official Two], can you remember a meeting you’ve been in with him where he didn’t bring it up, even if it’s not a major topic, it’s a discussion point?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: As far as I can recall, in every meeting I’ve been in, at least in the past six months, if not longer.
MODERATOR: Okay. Abbie.
QUESTION: I know this isn’t your specialty, but I wondered if there were any (inaudible) if there was any discussion with European members of the JCPOA about the next steps in the dispute resolution mechanism and where that’s headed.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We certainly have talked Iran and the continuing challenges of their behavior. I don’t think any of the conversations I was in got into specifics of that. As I said, Ploetner, the German, kind of my – one of my German counterparts, had been in Tehran.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Just to say these things normally, when you come to one of these and there’s tons of bilats, you end up kind of talking about the same thing in a lot of the meetings. It’s been very – as a theme, China and Afghanistan, Iran, Middle East peace plan have been touched on in most of the meetings that we were in, but as sort of a – the broader themes of the discussion in the bilats have been China and Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Can you expand upon what concerns were expressed or support was expressed in Europe for what is happening with Afghanistan right now or working with the Taliban?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So a lot of great interest in that. Zal, of course, has been around and briefing as well. Kind of – certainly those in the coalition are very interested in how this goes, I think appreciated very much the chance to actually sit down with the Secretary and hear him go through where we are. And everybody joins in the uncertainty about all this, but certainly it’s a case study in where we’ve tried to use diplomacy to see where we can move things.
Military decisions are going to be taken on the basis of where we are, and I think everybody is restrained in their expectations. But that’s the – the magic of this is we keep trying to move forward and look for opportunities, really opportunities for the Afghans to come together, and hopefully that will be the next stage. We bring the violence down – this hope – and see what comes next.
QUESTION: Last night, [a senior State Department official] warned that Europe is on the verge of another major refugee crisis as a result of what’s going on in Idlib and on the Turkish border. So I’m just wondering if you’ve had any conversations with the Europeans how they’re planning to manage that, especially given the political climate in Germany on that issue.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We haven’t gotten into any specifics of that. I think that always hangs over as one of the great concerns is and why we focus on and why our Europeans partners are interested in Syria, in Libya for that matter. A great deal of interest on the part of not just the Germans, I think of (inaudible) but certainly the Italians and others (inaudible). But it hasn’t come up in terms of actual logistics, dynamics, planning, and focused on (inaudible).