Keynote Address at the Brookings Institution

Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Keynote Address at the 2012 Center on the United States and Europe (CUSE) Annual Conference
Washington, DC
May 23, 2012

Date: 05/23/2012 Description: Assistant Secretary Gordon delivers keynote address at the Brookings Institution. © Brookings Institution photo

Strobe, thanks very much indeed for that warm welcome. It is indeed nice to be back home, so to speak. I’ll always be -- always glad to be back here at Brookings, and I see a lot of old friends and colleagues in the room, some distinguished ambassador colleagues, and many others that I’m really delighted to see again.

Strobe, I continue to feel somewhat guilty about the degree to which the Obama Administration raided the ranks of Brookings when we took office just over three years ago. I say, though, just somewhat guilty because I think U.S. foreign policy has benefited from the Brookings scholars that are serving in the Obama Administration. We’ve given a few of them back in the meantime. And in any case, Brookings is clearly continuing to thrive as the serious independent research institution that it has been for so long.

I’m also very pleased to see how much the Center on the United States and Europe continues to thrive under the leadership of Fiona Hill and Justin Vaïsse. Obviously I’m biased, but it seems to me that the original logic we had when we founded the Center -- of a place where we could follow dynamic developments across the Atlantic and within Europe -- the case for having such an institution is as strong now as it was when the Center was founded six or seven years ago.

Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that today’s conference -- today’s annual conference is occurring at a time of incredible activity in Europe. Strobe mentioned the G8 and NATO summits that President Obama participated in, hosted in Camp David, in Chicago just last week. And then of course, literally as I speak, European Union leaders are sitting down for what will be a very interesting dinner confronting the challenges of the euro zone and the question of how to generate jobs and growth. I will return to the implications of these recent events later in my remarks.

But where I’d like to begin is to take a step back and just recall how the world looked when President Obama took office three and a half years ago. And so before I talk about what we think we’ve accomplished in that period, the topic for this session is the record so far, I think it’s worth recalling the basic thinking that we had about Europe at the very start.

And I think it’s pretty simple to say -- I think it’s fair to say that what President Obama inherited was one of the most daunting global set of challenges that any administration had faced for some time. If you think about the ongoing war in Iraq, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the growing nuclear challenge from Iran, the scourge of global terrorism, and, of course, the greatest financial crisis since the 1930s, strains in transatlantic unity compounded the difficulty of handling these complicated issues.

Think about the really unprecedented divisions across the Atlantic we had over Iraq, but also questions about European engagement in Afghanistan, disagreement about how to handle Iran’s nuclear program, and the relationship with Russia that was probably at the worst point since the end of the Cold War. A German Marshall Fund poll taken in 2008 found that just 19 percent of Europeans approved of our handling of international affairs and only 36 percent viewed American leadership in the world as desirable. So when President Obama came in, I think he understood that the challenges that we faced were so considerable that even America’s unparalleled power could not deal with them alone. And so he came to office with the conviction that the United States could address these challenges more effectively by working together with partners. And he was convinced that we had no more important set of partners in dealing with this set of challenges than those in the democratic countries in Europe.

The thinking is that alliances are a qualitatively different set of relationships than just coalitions of the willing. They produce habits of cooperation, they involve standing institutions and procedures, and they provide operational capabilities that can be called upon at a moment’s notice, as we demonstrated in using NATO in Libya just the last year. But when President Obama took office, these alliances had frayed and were in need of repair.

Already in that summer of 2007, then Senator Obama wrote in Foreign Affairs* that the mission of the United States is to provide global leadership grounded in the understanding that the world shares a common security and a common humanity. In order to achieve this goal, he stated his intention was to rebuild the alliances, partnerships, and institutions necessary to confront common threats and enhance common security.

In a speech that he gave in Berlin a year later, then candidate Obama underscored the priority placed on revitalizing these alliances. He observed that no nation, no matter how large or powerful, can defeat such challenges alone and when looking for strong partners to deal with this challenging world -- alongside to deal with this challenging world, Europe was the place that we would find them. This administration has, therefore, invested deliberately and consciously in strengthening these essential transatlantic ties. Next week I will depart with [Secretary] Clinton for what will be her 30th trip to Europe in office as Secretary of State.

So in addition to multiple bilateral visits, these travels have included ministerial meetings, summits, and, importantly, international conferences on a range of global issues, including Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Syria, cyber security, and women’s issues, just to name a few. This commitment of time and effort to the relationship with Europe, not to mention the jetlag that comes along inevitably with it, has been far from routine. Instead, it has been driven by the profound belief that successful alliances require investment and that such investment pays real dividends.

And we think it has. I believe that one of the most important and lasting legacies of this Secretary of State will be her revitalizing of America’s alliances, and first and foremost our alliance with Europe. A direct result of this investment is the following thesis: I would assert that the United States and Europe have never been more strategically aligned. This is not to say that there aren’t differences between us, just as there are debates within the United States or the European Union. But the reality is that we have developed a common transatlantic agenda that enables us to join forces to meet the demands of a very challenging world to a degree that I don’t think was paralleled, not just in recent times in the previous administration, but the one before that or the several that preceded that. And this unity of purpose, I think, is now recognized on both sides of the Atlantic.

The German Marshall Fund poll that I cited earlier saying that 36 percent of Europeans had faith in the President’s handling -- in U.S. leadership in the world, is now at 75 percent and has consistently been in the upper 70s and lower 80s since President Obama took office. And this, I would assert, is an asset that serves us well when we call on these European democracies to follow our global international leadership, which we do all the time.

Rather than just asserting that we are more strategically aligned than ever, let me give you a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean. I mentioned already, President Obama’s hosting the G8 and NATO summits this past weekend. I think these two meetings embody American leadership on the global stage. As the President himself put it in Chicago, one of his top foreign policy priorities was to strengthen our alliances, including NATO, and that’s exactly what we have done.

The centerpiece of the NATO Summit, I think it’s fair to say, was Afghanistan. With nearly 40,000 European troops fighting alongside American troops for pretty much the past decade, we have sustained NATO’s largest ever overseas deployment. And from the beginning and notwithstanding serious financial pressures and domestic political pressures, the alliance has held firmly to the principle of in together, out together. At the NATO Summit in Lisbon 18 months ago, allies, ISAF partners and the Afghan government agreed upon a transition strategy that would result in the Afghan government assuming full responsibility for security across Afghanistan by the end of 2014. This strategy is on track. It was reaffirmed in Chicago. And today, approximately 50 percent of the Afghan population lives in areas where Afghan national security forces have taken the lead. This summer that proportion will rise to 75 percent of the country as we implement the third phase of transition. In Chicago, NATO leaders and ISAF leaders also established a milestone in mid 2013, next summer, when ISAF’s mission will shift to primarily train, advise, and assist, and Afghan forces will be even more responsible for their own security.

We have no illusions about the difficulties in Afghanistan now or in the years ahead. But we also believe that it’s worth recalling the tremendous progress that has been made in the past decade. The country’s GDP has tripled since 2001. Sixty percent of Afghans now have basic health care -- have access to basic health care facilities, which is nearly six times the number in 2002. The number of Afghans in schools continues to rise now to more than 8 million. And perhaps most importantly, recent polls in Afghanistan underscore that the number of Afghans who say they sympathize with the insurgents is at record lows.

In order to maintain a secure environment that will enable Afghanistan’s continued political and economic development, the alliance also agreed on a plan for future sustainment of Afghan forces. And while the Chicago summit was in no way a pledging conference, we did want to demonstrate to Afghans, to the Taliban, and to our own societies that we were prepared to support Afghan national security forces after the end of 2014 in the way that will be necessary, and the international community came together and made political commitments of more than a billion dollars for that project after 2014. More than a billion dollars per year after 2014.

Furthermore, the alliance reaffirmed its enduring commitment to the Afghan people beyond the end of the combat mission, and in Chicago leaders defined a new phase of cooperation that will focus on training, advising, and assisting Afghan troops.

I think all of this together demonstrates our ongoing commitment to working toward our shared goal of building a safer and more secure and prosperous Afghanistan where al Qaeda has no role.

Beyond Afghanistan, the summit also highlighted the alliance’s continued commitment to defense capabilities. I’ll just mention a few. We announced an interim capability for missile defense that will, for the first time, protect European populations, territories, and forces from the growing threat of ballistic missiles, potentially nuclear weapons as well. The United States will provide critical assets for the system, but it’s hardly a U.S. effort alone. Turkey will be hosting a radar that will be placed under NATO command. Romania and Poland will host land-based interceptors. Spain will home port Aegis ballistic missile defense-capable ships. The Netherlands will upgrade sea-based radars and contribute deployable Patriot systems. Germany is also contributing deployable Patriot systems. France is planning to contribute a space-based early warning radar, as well as a deployable radar. NATO, as a whole, will provide commonly funded infrastructure, and allied heads of state and government agreed in Chicago to explore additional voluntary contributions. So, be clear about that, the United States is making a major contribution, but it is, once again, an alliance-wide effort with Europeans playing a major role.

Very conscious of the tight defense budgets that we face across the alliance, we also announced progress under the rubric of what NATO Secretary General Rasmussen calls smart defense. For example, the commonly funded allied ground surveillance system that will give the alliance, for the first time, a fleet of remotely piloted drones that will provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and also the agreement to extend NATO air policing for the Baltic states so that they can devote their resources to other common projects. We also announced completion of the alliance’s deterrence and defense posture view that spells out the appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional, and missile defense capabilities that the alliance needs.

We are well aware that measures such as these do not obviate the need for continued defense investments that will be required if the alliance is going to remain the most successful ever. And in Chicago, President Obama made that very clear to his European counterparts. But we also know that in these difficult financial circumstances we should pool our efforts to the maximum extent possible, and this is what the smart defense initiatives and, really, the concept of the alliance itself allow us all to do.

Finally, the NATO Summit recognized the crucial role played by partners in NATO operations. Remember that the Libya operation brought 28 allies together with 5 partner nations while ISAF in Afghanistan involved 22 non-NATO troop-contributing partner countries. They’re playing an increasingly important role in all of NATO’s missions, and these successful partnerships demonstrate the extent to which the alliance has really become a global hub for our collective action.

At President Obama’s request, the North Atlantic Council will look at what is to further enhance our partnerships, not just across Europe but in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia as well.

Allies did not take decisions on further enlargement in Chicago, but they sent a positive message to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Georgia in support of their membership goals. At a meeting in Chicago of the 28 allies and those 4 NATO aspirants, Secretary Clinton made clear that NATO’s door must remain open to European democracies that are willing and able to assume the responsibilities and obligations of membership.

Within the NATO context, let me say a couple of words about Libya. It is easy to take for granted the role that NATO played in giving the people of Libya a chance for a better future, but it was not a given that NATO would play a significant role or indeed any role at all. It was a conscious decision. It was in response to Qaddafi’s all-too-real threats against the people of Benghazi that President Obama led the way to establish a U.N. Security Council-endorsed no-fly zone, as well as an authorization for member states to take all necessary measures to protect civilians. And, again, it was a conscious decision to seek to involve not just European allies or other partners around the world, but the NATO alliance itself.

During the first 10 days of this operation, the United States used its unique assets to eliminate Libya’s air defenses and lay the groundwork for a handover to NATO. Washington then passed command and control of the mission to NATO while continuing to provide the bulk of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, in-air refueling, jamming, and other critical capabilities. Every ally contributed through NATO’s integrated command structure, while 14 allies and 4 partners provided the necessary naval and air forces.

United States flew 25 percent of all sorties, while France and the United Kingdom together accounted for 40 percent. But, again, I want to underscore the genuinely important role that European allies played in this, not just France and the United Kingdom, but Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Italy, and Canada all carried out large numbers of strike missions and sustained them over many months.

Think about a comparison. In the Kosovo conflict that NATO undertook in 1999, the United States provided 90 percent of the precision-guided munitions and around 85 percent of the strike sorties. In Libya, those proportions were exactly the other way around. We are now of course continuing to work closely with our European and international partners to help Libyans build a more inclusive and democratic society.

Beyond these joint efforts in NATO, the United States is working extraordinarily closely with Europeans to address a range of other global challenges that I think also fit under this thesis I’m advancing about more closer partnership and more strategic alignment than ever. And to take maybe the best example, think about Iran.

Another timely topic is our negotiators as we speak are in Baghdad meeting with the Iranians. I think it’s fair to say on this one the United States has coordinated with our European partners more closely than ever before. We have enjoyed unprecedented unity with the European Union in our dual-track approach of putting pressure on the Iranian regime to meet its international obligations, but also being ready to undertake a diplomatic path to ensure that their nuclear program remains civil.

With the Europeans we have together agreed on U.N. Security Council 1929, several IAEA Board of Governors resolutions, and we have seen the EU decision to ban imports of crude oil, Iranian crude oil, and to freeze the assets of the Iranian Central Bank. Those of you who have been working on these issues for some time, as I know a lot of scholars at Brookings have, I think would have to appreciate the unprecedented nature of this cooperation on sanctions and an oil embargo, which I think probably couldn’t have been predicted just a couple of years ago or even six months ago.

And so as I say, today as we speak the E3+3 is in Baghdad to engage in serious negotiations regarding the international community’s concerns. And the United States and its European allies have not only never been more united on Iran, but I think that the pressure on Iran to abide by its international obligations has also never been greater. Those two things are linked. It is the common pressure that we are putting on the Iranians that we think has brought them back to the table.

On Syria, we’ve also worked very closely with our European partners to steadily ratchet up pressure on the Assad regime through various avenues, including multiple rounds of sanctions. We have engaged in active diplomacy in the major U.N. bodies to unite the international community behind the Annan plan, responded to a growing humanitarian crisis, and expanded our communications and logistic support for the opposition. Secretary Clinton has joined her European counterparts and other regional leaders to coordinate our approach to these goals and to send a clear signal that despite minimal success in the U.N. Security Council, the broader international community will continue to pursue all available measures to secure a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Syria.

I’ve been talking mostly about our cooperation with Europeans around the world, and I obviously think that is worth stressing, but in no way should it suggest that our agenda within Europe is somehow diminished or has gone away. Beyond the global challenges that I’m talking about, there is what is sometimes called unfinished business in Europe, namely the integration of these countries into the Euro-Atlantic community of democracies. And we’ve been working side by side with our European partners to address remaining political and economic issues across the continent.

In the Western Balkans, it is clear that the region’s stability and prosperity will depend on its countries pursuing reforms necessary for their eventual integration in Europe. We have said very clearly from the start that Europe will not be complete until all of the Balkans are integrated into Euro-Atlantic institutions.

Some significant milestones have been reached in recent months. Croatia’s succession to the European Union, for example, sends a very strong signal to the entire region that, admittedly, difficult reforms bring genuine progress. We’re encouraged by the new Bosnian government’s efforts to meet EU and NATO integration requirements, including the passage of laws on census and state aid, as well as the political agreement to solve the defense and state property issue. We hope to see Bosnia fully implement these agreements in order to make progress towards joining Euro-Atlantic institutions.

We are also pleased that both Kosovo and Serbia moved closer to Europe as the EU granted Serbia candidacy status and agreed to give Kosovo roadmaps for visa liberalization and a feasibility study for a stabilization and association agreement. Once again, the United States worked very closely with its EU partners, and in this case the OSCE, to ensure during the recent elections in Serbia that Serbian citizens with dual nationality, including those living in Kosovo, would be able to exercise their right to vote in the Serbian parliamentary and presidential elections.

The EU-facilitated dialogue has provided a means for the two countries to address issues that complicate daily life for ordinary citizens, but only to the extent that the parties implement the resulting agreements.

Although we are still assessing what Tomislav Nikolic’s election as Serbia’s president means for Kosovo in the broader region, we welcome his stated commitment to Serbia’s European future and encourage him to work constructively with the new government to achieve that goal. In that spirit, the United States and our European partners need to work together with leaders across the region on new ideas to resolve the challenges in northern* Kosovo in line with Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In particular we need to help develop a framework that permits a normalization of practical neighborly relations, frees* up both countries to move on their paths to European integration, and avoid sowing the seeds of further zero-sum confrontation in the region.

Finally, we’re working with the EU and its member states to help the people of Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus. We fully support Ukraine’s efforts to deepen its integration with Europe, including steps taken thus far to reform the criminal procedure code. Unfortunately, Ukraine’s European integration process has been hindered by limited progress on the political and economic reforms needed to move forward and by what appears to us to be politically motivated prosecution, selective prosecution, of opposition leaders.

We, closely working with the European Union, continue to call on the government of Ukraine to release these individuals and to ensure that the October parliamentary elections are free and fair.

Moldova’s presidential election in March opens the door for reforms needed for closer integration with Europe. We’re also seeing encouraging signs on the international efforts to produce a Transnistria settlement.

Belarus remains an outlier in Europe*, particularly following the December 2010 presidential election when hundreds of political and opposition activists including several presidential candidates were arrested without cause.

We and our European partners continue to call on the government of Belarus to release political prisoners and allow opposition parties, civil society, and independent media to operate freely.

Let me say a few words about another very important part of President Obama’s record, which is the progress we’ve made in developing more productive relations with Russia. The President’s approach to Russia has been guided by the conviction that we could cooperate on areas of mutual interest while speaking very plainly about areas of disagreement, maintaining support for our friends, and holding firmly to our principles.

The development of a more effective working relationship, we believe, has, in fact, led to an impressive list of mutually beneficial foreign policy achievements, including, just to mention a few, the New START Agreement, the 123 Agreement on Civil Nuclear Energy Cooperation, military transit arrangements in support of our common efforts in Afghanistan, a visa agreement to promote bilateral business ties, major bilateral trade deals, and unprecedented cooperation with Russia on Iran sanctions.

The list also includes the conclusion of negotiations to welcome Russia into the World Trade Organization, a goal that had been an objective of U.S. and Russian administrations for nearly 20 years.

We’re currently working with Congress to terminate the application of the Jackson-Vanik amendment for Russia. Lifting Jackson-Vanik and extending permanent, normal trade relations with Russia are not gifts to Russia, rather, they are in the fundamental interest of the United States to create and sustain jobs as well as ensure that U.S. firms will benefit from Russia’s WTO market access commitments.

Were we to fail to graduate Russia from Jackson-Vanik, we would be disadvantaging American companies* relative to their competitors in other WTO member states.

We should not forget that in Vice-President Biden’s 2009 Munich speech, which first articulated the strategy that has come to be known as the "reset”*, there were three important corollaries. The Vice-President said that the United States will not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He said the United States does not recognize spheres of influence with Europe. And he said that the United States maintains that sovereign states have the right to choose their alliances.

And despite some initial questioning among some of Russia’s neighbors, we have not given an inch on any of these principles. Indeed, our improved relations with Russia have not come at the expense of our allies or our values and we have continued to speak frankly about our differences.

I know some have asked whether the progress with Russia that we have made in the past three years will continue under President Putin. All I can say is we are certainly ready to pursue that goal. I would point out that Mr. Putin was the head of Russia’s government for all of the past three years when all of these positive things were accomplished.

We obviously have to be realistic. We know that achievements going forward will be the result of hard work on both sides and will require a continued focus on mutual interests. We know there are ongoing issues of disagreement, such as over missile defense, and Georgia.*

There are contentious issues that have arisen recently, including our differences over how to respond to the crisis in Syria, but even as we discuss these difficult issues, we are going to continue to operate on the assumption that we have many common interests in Russia and we can pursue those while also being very clear about the things we differ on and without sacrificing our principles or our friends.

All of the common transatlantic achievements that I have outlined are, we think, fairly impressive in their own right but even more notable when you consider the context in which they have come about. Obviously, I’m referring to the great economic challenges that we face on both sides of the Atlantic.

As President Obama has said many times, the United States has an enormous stake in the resolution of the Euro Zone crisis. The European Union is our largest trade and investment partner. The EU and its member states account for 58 percent of overseas development aid and when you combine that with U.S. spending, we together provide 80 percent of the world’s development assistance. We clearly need strong and prosperous European allies.

The same is true on common defense. I underscored our message to European allies about the importance of sustaining defense spending. It’s obviously only possible when Europe’s economies are succeeding.

Despite our significant stake in the outcome of the economic steps taken in Europe, we also recognize that these are European issues that require European solutions. We have urged European governments to act decisively to resolve the debt crisis, we’ve offered our perspective about the risks that Europe’s crisis poses for the global recovery, and we’ve shared lessons of our own financial crisis about the importance of responding to market challenges decisively and focusing on job creation and growth.

We’re encouraged by the progress that our European colleagues have made in recent months, including significant actions that would have seemed out of reach a few years ago. In Ireland, Portugal and Spain, these countries have reduced their structural budget deficit by 5 percentage points since 2009 and Greece by nearly 12 points. In Italy, Prime Minister Monti* has marshaled really sweeping economic reforms including pension reforms and dozens of measures to free Italy’s markets and streamline its bureaucracy in just a matter of months.

Euro area governments have taken steps to put in place an 800 billion euro firewall for what we think is a good reason. As Secretary Geithner has said, reforms will take time. We’ve acknowledged that there is no silver bullet and even if all of these measures work, it will take time, and will not work without financial support that enables governments to borrow at affordable rates and keeps the overall rate of interest across the economy at levels that won’t slow growth.

And also EU member states have come together in record time to endorse the fiscal compact treaty, which provides a path for deficit reduction, strengthens oversight and coordination at the European level in unprecedented ways, and reassures populations across Europe that new lending will be accompanied by needed reforms and fiscal discipline.

We have also said that fiscal reforms are only part of the solution. The harder challenge in Europe and globally is to boost competitiveness and growth. Much of this is for Europeans on their own to do, but there is a U.S. component as well and President Obama has undertaken discussions with his European counterparts about how we can free up the transatlantic economy, notably through the U.S.-EU High Level Working Group on Jobs and Growth, which is reviewing all options for deeper transatlantic economic cooperation including the possibility of a comprehensive free trade agreement.

The United States welcomes the evolving debate in Europe about opportunities for creating jobs and growth. At the G8 summit this past weekend, President Obama led a discussion with leaders about a comprehensive approach to managing the crisis and getting on a path, a sustainable path, to recovery. He reaffirmed that America is not only confident in Europe’s ability to meet their challenges, but we are supportive of their efforts.

The President and his European counterparts agreed on our shared interest in keeping Europe’s monetary union intact and in remaining engaged on the world stage despite budget constraints on both sides of the Atlantic.

I have covered a lot of ground, so let me conclude. I will -- in closing, I would like to return to the thesis with which I began, which is that the United States and Europe have never been more strategically aligned, and this, as I have said, is not an accident or the fortuitous or temporary alignment of geopolitical tectonic plates. It is, instead, the result of a deliberate and conscious strategy to invest in a partnership with the world’s most advanced, military-capable, and democratic peoples who share our values and ideals.

History will determine whether this approach and this investment was a wise one. We believe, as I have argued, that it has already paid off and that it will continue to pay off for years to come.

Thank you very much. I look forward to your questions.


* Transcription error correction.