Previewing Secretary Tillerson's Trip to Bonn for the G20

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
February 14, 2017

MODERATOR: Thanks, everybody. Thanks for joining us. Good morning. Welcome to the background call previewing Secretary Tillerson’s first trip as Secretary of State, and it will be to Bonn, Germany. We have with us today three senior State Department officials, who can walk us through both the G20 and some of the other meetings that will take place on the margins of the conference.

I can say on Thursday the Secretary will participate in the G20 first working session, and that’s going to focus on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Also, he’ll participate in a dinner in honor of the foreign ministers attending the conference. There’ll also be a meeting on Yemen and a number of bilateral meetings that some of my colleagues can speak to.

On Friday, while in Bonn as well, the Secretary will participate in a likeminded Syria meeting. It’ll also take part in the G20 second session, a working lunch, and again, bilateral meetings on the margins.

We do expect to announce the trip officially later today – frankly, later this morning. Just a reminder, this call is embargoed until wheels-down. And we’ll be on background, and a transcript of this call will be posted on tomorrow, once the traveling party is wheels-down in Bonn.

Let me just introduce quickly our senior State Department officials who are on the call with us, and then I’ll hand it over to the first one to – of them to give a brief overview. We have with us today [name and title], who will be Senior State Department Official One. [Name and title] will be Senior State Department Official Number Two. And then we also have from [name and title], henceforth known as Senior State Department Official Number Three.

So without further ado, I’ll hand it over to our Senior State Department Official Number One to add anything [Senior State Department Official One] – we might have missed, or I might have missed. Go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Oh, thank you very much, [Moderator]. The G20 foreign ministers meeting – this’ll be one of a series of ministers’ meetings during the German – Germany’s presidency of the G20. And this culminates in the G20 Leaders Summit July 7th and 8th in Hamburg. As [Moderator] said, the theme for the foreign ministers meeting is Shaping the Global Order: Foreign Policy Beyond Crisis Management. And the discussion topics will include the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – the UN secretary-general will be participating; Maintaining Peace in a Complex World; the Future of Rules-Based International Order; and Cooperation with Africa, and that will take place – the Cooperation with Africa discussion – over lunch.

The Secretary will participate in all of these meetings, and I will join for discussions on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Maintaining Peace in a Complex World. This will – as you know, the G20 summit was started at the time of – the leaders summit was started at the time of the financial crisis, 2008 and ’09. But the focus has shifted from economic crisis response to prevention, so that will be the theme: strengthening the global economic order, making global growth more inclusive. And it’ll include additional issues that have economic ramifications such as health, food security, and energy efficiency.

The President has accepted Chancellor Merkel’s invitation to attend the G20 Leaders Summit in Hamburg July 7th and 8th, and this meeting feeds into that meeting, and the – of course, then into the G20, when Argentina takes over from Germany in December. Germany’s presidency started in December 2016, and we’re developing U.S. areas of focus within the general parameters of the G20 this year.

We expect it’ll continue to be an excellent forum for promoting priorities and achieving related concerns. I think we’re also going to be focusing on the need for G20 members to work together to help the UN system and broader international community focus on better ways to integrate its efforts to sustain peace, particularly those efforts focused on conflict prevention and post-conflict peacekeeping. And as you know, and my colleagues can address, some of the meetings on the margin will be discussing actual areas of where we have conflict.

We’ll also continue to promote rules-based international economic order that facilitates security and prosperity and promotes liberty and human dignity. And as we confront the new challenges and proliferating threats that could undermine this order, it’s critical we will be (inaudible) to work together with each other through diplomacy and dialogue to support an order that’s flexible and responsive to the needs of our citizens.

I think that – I mentioned the meeting on Africa. We’ll continue to partner with African countries and the G20 members to meet the challenges and opportunities ahead, and we will commend the African participants on the progress that’s been made to date on those.

The Secretary will also have a chance – and I – again, my colleagues can address this – to discuss the threat of ISIS and terrorism more generally, which is concern of all the G20 members.

With that, I’d be happy to answer questions, but I’d let my other colleagues go now.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks so much. I’ll, at this point, hand it over to our Senior State Department Official Number Two to add anything [Senior State Department Official Two] would like.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Great, [Moderator]. Thank you very much. Appreciate everybody’s interest in this important visit. Obviously, Germany is the venue – EUR is a venue for the G20 meeting. There are 20-plus partners here – very, very important countries, key countries for the Secretary to have bilaterals with, in addition to the G20 agenda that we just talked about. And we do expect a number of bilaterals of EUR – of European countries, allies, and Russia and others.

The Secretary will – a couple of key themes from his meetings will be to reassure everyone of our continued commitment to transatlantic relations and to our commitments – transatlantic commitments in NATO and otherwise, and to urge solidarity with Europeans on Ukraine and on Russia, on the Minsk, and to push Russia to honor its commitments, both in Ukraine and elsewhere.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks so much. And then lastly but not least, [Senior State Department Official Three].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: Good morning. There will be, in Bonn, a couple of engagements on the Middle East. One is a bilateral meeting with the Saudi foreign minister.

And then we’ll have a sort of a quint-plus-one format. Don’t read too much into the name; I don’t know that it’s going to stay. But in any case, we’re signaling that there’ll be six of us gathering to discuss Yemen, six of the key players – U.S., UK, the Emiratis, the Saudis, the UN, of course, and the Omanis.

And what – I think what we intend on this meeting is, since it’s Secretary Tillerson’s first meeting with Middle East leaders on the subject of Yemen, is that we’ll be primarily in listening mode. I think we view it as an opportunity for him to sync up with these parties, with this other foreign ministers, his counterparts to get into some of the concerns, the state of play, and the way forward. We will continue to emphasize that there’s no military solution to the conflict. We will want to underscore our support for the coalition. But at the same time, we acknowledge that there are multiple parties here and that we’ll want to do our best to coordinate with all the sides to come to the best way back to a political track. So I think he looks forward to this engagement. It’ll be one of his, as noted earlier, be his – among his first international engagements.

His meeting with the Saudi foreign minister – it’s a long-established ally and we anticipate focusing in that meeting on Yemen but also having an opportunity to talk about other ways that we could partner with the Saudis, strengthen the bilateral relationship.

And then finally, a likeminded meeting on Syria, which will give the Secretary a chance to converse with some of his counterparts from a number of countries, around 10 countries, who will participate and give him an opportunity to wade into this conflict and talk about some possible solutions.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks so much. At this point, I think we have some time for any questions. So I’ll hand it over to the operator and their first questioner.

OPERATOR: Pardon me. Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press * then 1. You may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question, please press *1 at this time.

And first we’re going to Felicia Schwartz, Wall Street Journal. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks to all of you for doing this. Would like to just register some concern that there’s not some political appointee or a close aide to Tillerson to brief us on his first trip. But I appreciate that all of you are here and are briefing us. But can you give us a full list of the bilats? And who is in the likeminded Syria meeting? Does that include Russia? Can you give us a full list of those countries as well?

MODERATOR: Felicia, [Moderator] here. Look, we can go through some of them. But I think we did outline some of the bilats that were confirmed at this point. The problem though that – as you know, with some of these events is that, while we always seek to have bilats with those countries on the margins of the other official functions, it’s a bit of a dynamic situation. So we can confirm some at this point, and I think we did in the opening remarks, but can’t confirm all of them at this point. But again, as we do confirm them, we’ll certainly let you know.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: [Moderator], let me just jump in on the EUR side. We certainly anticipate and plan for a bilat with Lavrov, with Russia, with Turkey, with the UK, with Italy. And there obviously will be opportunities for many conversations with Germany, and France, and others. So we expect conversations with everybody, but the bilats that we’re talking about now are Russia, Turkey, Italy, and UK. Those are the ones that are pretty well set.

MODERATOR: Thanks. Senior State Department Official Three, I think you outlined some, but did we miss any?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: No. I mentioned three Middle Eastern meetings – a bilat with the Saudis; a Yemen meeting involving a group of us; and then the likeminded meeting that is 10 countries, does not include the Russians.

MODERATOR: Thank you so much. Great. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we’re going to the line of Matthew Lee, AP. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks. I have the one logistical question about the announcement that’s going to go out. How detailed will that be? Will it have the expected meetings with Lavrov in it and the others in it or is it going to be more general? And I’m asking simply to prepare for writing something when the announcement comes out, given that this is embargoed until we get there.

And then my substantive question is: On Russia and Ukraine, when you say that you want to show solidarity with Europe on Ukraine, the administration thus far seems to have been giving some conflicting signals. Are you saying that this will – should put to rest speculation that the new administration is going to be somehow softer on Russia over Ukraine and other things?

MODERATOR: Just very quickly to your logistical question up top, and then I’ll let Senior State Department Official Number Two weigh in. The trip announcement that I’m looking at, Matt, it mentions those who will take place in the – excuse me – in the Yemen meeting and, I believe, Syria meeting, but it does not mention specific bilats in the actual public announcement.

Senior State Department Official Number Two, do you want to weigh in about the – his second question?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, sure. Matt, thank you. Thanks for the question. No, the conversation with Mr. Lavrov, obviously, will be a very important one. And while I don’t want to preview exactly what’s going to happen in the conversation, what we would anticipate and what we’ve done in the past in these conversations is look for pragmatic – for ways for pragmatic and constructive cooperation in areas where our interests overlap; the obvious ones which have been discussed many times are counter-ISIS and counterterrorism would be areas that the Secretary would hope to develop some possible avenues for cooperation.

But at the same time, and this has been signaled publicly in a number of statements, he will likely push for full implementation of the parties including Russia’s commitments under the Minsk agreement for the Donbass, and as well you heard Ambassador Haley talk about the Crimean sanctions, as well.

So we are looking for – the President himself has said that it’s too early to talk about lifting sanctions, so we are looking for solidarity with Europe on these series of measures that we’ve agreed.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks so much. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we go to the line of Barbara Usher, BBC.

QUESTION: Yeah, just a quick one. Do you have any information about the bilat with Boris Johnson, the UK minister, and what would be on the agenda with that in terms of following up Theresa May’s visit and so on?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. The May visit, of course, was very important and this would be the first opportunity for the Secretary to meet the foreign secretary. Obviously, though, they’ll want to discuss the special relationship and our support for Britain’s global role; cooperation in key areas – counter-ISIS and other areas where we’ve worked closely with the Brits for a long, long time – and want to compare notes and, again, deepen our solidarity on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and Britain’s leadership in that – in the international response to that, as well; the management of Brexit so that there can be a pragmatic Brexit and a strong UK and a strong EU coming out of those negotiations will be another part of their conversation, I would expect. We know no way to know precisely, but based on previous conversations, I would expect that to be – those to be the main topics.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks so much. Next question, please. I think we have time for a few more.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Next we’ll go on to the line of Dmitry Kirsanov, TASS.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks a lot for doing the call, guys. To Senior Official Number Two, I was hoping you might preview the bilat between Lavrov and Tillerson a bit more to give us – to flesh the agenda a bit more.

And also, is it going to be a full-scale sit-down or will – they will have several separate short meetings? How do you see that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, sir, obviously there are many details to be worked out when you have 20-plus key countries, ministers all together for a day and a half. There will be a number of opportunities for them to talk, but the schedule does now have a period of time for a formal bilat between Secretary Tillerson and Foreign Minister Lavrov, yes.

QUESTION: And the agenda? A bit more details, if you please.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think I’ve given you all I have now. There’s obviously a whole world of – a whole global agenda for them to discuss and I wouldn’t want to preview – preview that ahead of time. I think it’s pretty clear that we’re going to look for areas for cooperation, but also honoring commitments.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thanks so much, great. Any other questions?

OPERATOR: Yes, going to the line of Lesley Wroughton, Reuters.

QUESTION: Yes, good morning. A question quickly on Syria: What kinds of issue – I mean, how deep in the weeds does the Secretary want to go on his first meetings on Syria, specifically given the advance of talks in Astana (inaudible)? Would you believe that he’s – he’ll be looking to back into those talks and get more of a direct role for the U.S. in that?

And number two: Is the Secretary meeting with any African leaders that have been invited?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE: So this is number – Official Number Three. I can tackle the Syria piece. I think, as with the Yemen meeting, he’ll be primarily in listening mode. I mean, I think we all understand how complicated the conflict is, and I think he wants to use this initial engagement to get a sense of where the parties stand and then he’ll look for – work with his Syria team on a way forward.

MODERATOR: With respect, Lesley, to your second question about African leaders, I don’t believe so at this time, but I know they’re under consideration. Again, I think as a couple of our senior State Department officials have spoken to, there are indeed some bilats and some meetings locked in, but we’re still trying to confirm and lock down – or lock in some other bilats. So it’s still a bit dynamic. All right?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: There’s also going to be a luncheon discussion on Africa --

MODERATOR: Thank you so much. That’s important as well.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: -- with the African leaders.

MODERATOR: Yep, great. Thanks. I think we have time for one more question.

OPERATOR: Okay. And going to the line of Nike Ching, Voice of America.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for the – my question is: Is the Secretary Tillerson’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart finalized yet? And if so, is that the first time he’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart? And could you give us a preview on what to expect? Thank you.

MODERATOR: Nike, I guess I’ll take this one. I don’t think it has been locked in yet. Again, we’re still trying to finalize the schedule. What we’ve tried to give you today is just an overview of sort of the key bilats and the key meetings that are in place. I don’t know if anyone else has anything to add, but we’re still looking at, obviously, other bilaterals as they develop.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, there will be many opportunities, and of course, China is part of the troika, having --

MODERATOR: Of course, correct.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: -- hosted before Germany. So we do expect there’ll be opportunities for them to engage.

MODERATOR: Correct, and that’s a very valid point, is that with respect to formal bilats, those are – some of those are still being finalized, but there of course will be many opportunities on the margins of these meetings, and in fact, in some of these meetings for them to talk.

So with that, I think we’ll close this up. I appreciate everyone for joining us and I appreciate especially our three senior State Department officials for walking us through the schedule and look forward to a productive trip. Thanks so much, everyone.