Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Remarks at Transatlantic Policy Network
Brussels, Belgium
September 30, 2009

[Listen to audio]

As delivered

Thank you very much. I really appreciate that, Mr. Brok. I’m delighted to be here at such a challenging time for the United States and Europe. There are so many issues that we’re confronting together. I appreciate the opportunity to address a few of them with you.

What I would like to do is talk a little bit about the context in which we, the Obama administration, have come in to face these many global challenges and challenges in Europe, the way we’re trying to do it together. I’ll briefly address some of what I think are the most critical issues for our partnership, and then most importantly, I will look forward to your questions and comments because I think we would most benefit from having a discussion rather than for me speaking for the entire time.

I would begin by suggesting that the Obama administration has taken office at one of the most challenging times ever for a U.S. administration. Arguably at least since the Nixon/Kissinger administration, we haven’t had a government take office with so many pressing global challenges. With Nixon/Kissinger, you had the Cold War, Mao, nuclear weapons, so maybe they faced a similarly difficult set of circumstances, but arguably it’s not since FDR that a President has come to office facing, as this President, a significant war in Afghanistan that was going increasingly less well as President Obama took office. A situation in Iraq where withdrawal had begun, but we still had more than 100,000 American troops. An Iran moving towards a nuclear weapons capability. A new challenge of climate change that has a major impact on our societies and our economies. And many others, American credibility at perhaps an all-time low throughout the world. And then finally, a couple of months before the election, a major global financial crisis leading to deficits and debt making it even more difficult to take on these challenges. So that’s a first point.

A second and related point is what I would describe as an American understanding or realization, and certainly the administration’s understanding, that the United States can’t possibly deal with all of these challenges alone. On that I say that’s hardly a revelation particularly to a group of Europeans, but it does stand in contrast to a feeling that I think was quite prevalent at the end of the 1990s and the early 2000’s whereby America was so powerful, so rich, the lone super power, that many Americans thought we could tackle these challenges essentially alone and it was for others to follow us.

I think this President has come to office realizing that we need the world’s support more than ever. I think the American population believes the same. And I think that as we look around the world and think about which partners can help us deal with challenges like Iran, Afghanistan, climate change, and the global financial crisis, that nowhere are there greater and more important partners than in Europe and the European Union.

In addition to the new circumstances and I think the new way of thinking about global affairs and European affairs, I think and hope that the administration has brought, is bringing, a new style and tone to the relationship. It’s not just understanding that we need strong partners, but dealing with them in a way that we hope shows some humility. We know that these challenges are so great that even America’s power can’t deal with them alone. And respect for the positions of others. And honesty about the way we want to go about dealing with them. That should help us with our partners.

At the same time, even as we’re saying that we need partners and we need to show humility and respect, I think we’re going to be demanding. As the President said at the United Nations the other day, this, dealing with these global challenges cannot be solely America’s endeavor. Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone.

So that’s the new deal that we’re proposing. America will change, has changed, it will change the way it goes about things, but it does need strong partners and we want to take the partnership with Europe in particular to a new level.

What are these main global issues that I’m talking about? Far too many to go into great detail on all of them, but let me mention a couple of the most critical. I’ll start with Afghanistan.

I want to start not in underscoring the great challenge and the great difficulty which we all know and I do want to talk about, but also underscoring how this illustrates how well we can work together when we have a common interest and are determined to do so. So we know it’s very difficult, but we also know, or at least should pause to understand, that there are some 100,000 non-Afghan forces in Afghanistan right now and nearly 40 percent of those are non-[American]. Europeans have also understood that this is a major challenge to them, and while there’s always a debate about burden sharing, and while the United States has and will continue to push for more European involvement in Afghanistan, more than 35,000 European troops is hugely significant and I think Americans notice and appreciate what Europe is doing there.

The threat from Afghanistan, as we’ve seen in terrorist incidents in Europe, is as much a threat to the Europeans as it is to the United States.

I know there’s been a lot of debate in Europe recently because there also has in the United States about the McChrystal report and what it means and whether our commitment is sustainable. That’s all fair enough. The United States is clearly going to have to lead on this issue. But it also needs to take its time to get it right. And the truth is that the election threw us all for a curve, we didn’t expect it to come out this way, and we need to see how the dust settles on that as we carefully consider General McChrystal’s report and decide how to move forward, but we hope we can do that as well together. Again, to repeat, this is not America’s war and it’s not America’s challenge, it is a collective challenge that we need to try to meet together.

Iran is another clear challenge to both Europeans and Americans. It’s a longstanding problem that I don’t need to rehearse the history of here, but there are some new elements to it. One is the aftermath of the recent Iranian election. I think that also took a lot of people by surprise and it changes the debate a little bit. I think it is no longer possible as some might have wanted previously to argue, that the Iranian regime was poorly understood and if only we engaged with it and gave it an opportunity we would see that we could work constructively with this government. The way the Iranian regime -- It’s not for us to decide who actually won the election, but what is clear is that the Iranian regime’s response to the election, violent response against non-violent protesters, shed a lot of light on that regime.

A second new factor is the engagement of the Obama administration. I think for years there were some who were prepared to blame the United States for not engaging with Iran, and this President has said he’s prepared to talk to Iran multilaterally, bilaterally, about all issues. To put the ball in Iran’s court and ask it to explain to the world, to demonstrate to the world and prove to the world that its nuclear program is a peaceful one as it asserts.

That brings us to a third new element which was the revelation last week that Iran has for several years been operating a covert enrichment facility which makes it difficult, frankly, to sustain the idea that its nuclear program is entirely for civilian purposes. The United States has known about this for some time. The Iranians only brought it to the IAEA in recent days when they learned that we knew about it. What we do know about it is that it’s underground, it’s near a military facility, it was hidden for several years, and it has the space for some 3,000 centrifuges which is not nearly enough to power a nuclear energy reactor but is plenty to enrich uranium to the point where you could build a nuclear weapon.

We have said we’re still prepared to talk with Iran, meet with Iran, and will be doing so tomorrow, I guess, if today is the 30th, right? October 1st, the P5+1 will meet with the Iranians. We’ll see what they have to say about it, but I do think this is going to be a challenge for the United States and Europe together if, because frankly nobody really expects Iran to make a major move in the coming days. If they don’t, then we will collectively have to address the issue of how we increase pressure on Iran to demonstrate that there are consequences for challenging the international community in this way.

There’s a natural segue from the Iran question to another question that has been very much in the headlines in Europe and the United States recently, which is missile defense. I’d like to say a word about that. In particular, because for all the talk about it, I think there has been a lot of misunderstanding of our new approach to missile defense, and frankly, many of the headlines we have seen in the past two weeks since we made the announcement have been misleading or just outright wrong. That is to say headlines that say “Obama scraps missile defense” are inaccurate.

What the President has done and what the administration has done is to suggest a different and we think better way of going about defending against the ballistic missile threat. That was driven by several factors and I think and hope you’ve heard about this. One is the threat assessment, and it’s clear that Iran has been focusing on short and medium range ballistic missiles, and significant numbers of them, meaning that the plan developed during the Bush administration to deploy ten interceptors in Poland wouldn’t be very effective against a significant number of medium range ballistic missiles that could hit Europe. Meanwhile the technology of a different kind of missile or interceptor, the Standard Missile 3 which will be the core of our approach, has developed quite successfully and can be deployed immediately to start defending Europeans and forward based American forces against this threat, and as the technology develops it will be effective against longer range threats as well.

In addition, the approach that the Obama administration has presented would have the merit of defending all of Europe against ballistic missile threats rather than just part of it, which would have been the case under the previous program. And we can deploy it sooner. As I say, we can start deploying right away because it’s based on technology that already exists.

That is the essence of what we’ve called this phased adaptive approach, and we think it’s not only a better plan to defend Americans and Europeans against the threat, but it is also a sign of continued commitment to those Central and Eastern European countries who were part of the original plan. There, too, I would challenge the notion that this in any way means walking away from Poland and the Czech Republic. As we presented this plan to the Poles two weeks ago, we made clear that Poland could be a part of the system, including being a host of the SM-3s. We made clear we were going ahead with the Patriot arrangements with Poland, also conceived in the previous administration. And that we were moving ahead with the commitment to a high level defense dialogue with Poland about its security needs. That, I would argue, is at least as significant a commitment to working with Poland as was previously the case.

That’s it for some, but clearly not all, of the major global challenges we face, and now I’d like to say a couple of words about some of the challenges within Europe. I don’t want to suggest that the U.S.-European partnership is now only about global affairs. It is more than ever, and it is more than in the past, about global affairs, and that is a significant way we look at Europe, as a partner to deal with these global challenges. But there are still some issues within Europe itself, and let me just mention a couple of those.

Talking about missile defense, I think it’s important to stress that it wasn’t about Russia. Abandoning the previous approach to missile defense to make Russia happy wouldn’t have been a smart thing to do either on grounds of principle or on grounds of effectiveness. That said, if doing missile defense in a different way happens to lead to a more constructive relationship with Russia, all to the good. We’re certainly not going to regret it if cooperation with Russia increases as a result of this shift, even if Russia wasn’t the reason for the shift.

As everybody knows, President Obama announced early on he wanted to reset policy with Russia. What that meant was his view, his conviction, that we could have a more constructive, useful, practical relationship with Russia in areas where we had common interests, even while disagreeing in areas where we didn’t. I think that’s what he announced with President Medvedev at the August 1st meeting in London, and that’s what we achieved to a large degree at the July summit in Moscow which resulted in a number of those concrete agreements in areas of common interest that I mentioned.

Afghan lethal transit, where American airplanes can now fly across Russia on the way to Afghanistan, saving significant time and money for the United States. Without a quid pro quo, but simply because we both have a common interest in doing that.
Military-to-military cooperation. A START follow-on agreement. A joint threat assessment on ballistic missiles. A presidential commission in a number of different areas where the United States and Russia will work together. All of this will strengthen U.S.-Russia cooperation without, I repeat, sacrificing any of our principles or our friends.

We continue to disagree about NATO enlargement. We continue to disagree about Georgia and its sovereignty and territorial integrity. We have different views on human rights and the rule of law, and the President raised all of those issues at the Summit. So this is not a naïve view that somehow we can just be nice to Russia and they’ll be nice to us and everything will be fine. It’s a hard-headed view about our interests and their interests, and we think that we can work together, and we are working together, and down the road we might even be able to work together in areas like missile defense where we’ve had such disagreements in the past.

A word on the Balkans. As we think about our challenges in Europe, one of them is continuing to extend the zone of peace and prosperity and democracy that the European Union is, and that has been a fantastic success in the past decade but there’s more work to do. There’s more work to do throughout a geographical region, to Europe’s East, in between the European Union and Russia -- Ukraine, Belarus, Balkans and Caucasus. The Balkans is a key piece of it.

At present, Balkan integration with Euroatlantic institutions is stalled. You have had for different and maybe justifiable reasons, Croatia stalled with a dispute with Slovenia; Macedonia stalled in a dispute with Greece; Serbia stalled because of an issue with the Netherlands; Bosnia stalled because of a dispute with Bosnia; and a lack of progress of all of these countries and others in the Western Balkans towards Euroatlantic institutions. We need to work on that. We need to continue the investments we have made there. Europe is not going to be whole, free and at peace until we get the Western Balkans moving towards the European Union, and in many cases NATO.

Let me end in terms of European challenges with a word on the Caucasus and Turkey. This is also a part of the continent of Europe and Eurasia that needs to move in the same direction towards stability, peace, prosperity that Europe has brought.

I mentioned Georgia. It’s a difference we have with Russia. The United States strongly supports Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, even as we encourage the government to show patience and understand that it cannot get its territories back by force, and the only way to do so is to build a strong democratic and prosperous Georgia as a magnet for the peoples who live in those regions.

We’ve also been very actively involved in the Caucasus in trying to promote normalization of the relationship between Armenia and Turkey, which as you know recently signed an agreement that moves them in that direction. There’s still a lot of work to do but we’re hopeful that that process can move forward, as we’re hopeful that the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia can move forward because those would be two historic developments in that part of the world, again contributing to peace and stability.

Turkey is critical to many of these pieces. It is always striking when you deal with Turkey that you’re dealing with energy, NATO, European Union, the Middle East, Iran, Cyprus, Greece, there’s hardly an issue that Turkey isn’t related to. And it is our strong belief that Turkey should strengthen its ties with Europe. I think sometimes the debate about Turkey’s membership in the European Union gets in the way of the real issue which is Turkey’s continued orientation towards the West, relations with the United States and Europe, and regardless of where you come out in terms of actual membership, we should agree that Turkey is a strategic challenge and binding it to the West is an important goal for Europeans and Americans alike.

If you sum all of this up I think you come back to the point I started with, which is we have an enormous international agenda. I barely scratched the surface of some of these issues and I ignored others completely like Sudan and issues in Asia. But I think even bringing up the questions I did underscores how huge a challenge we face together. But at the same time it underscores how we need to tackle these problems together, again as I say, looping back to what I started with -- The United States knows we can’t deal with Afghanistan, Iran, missile proliferation, climate change and all the rest alone. We need strong European partners and we hope to build on a relationship that I think is already particularly strong.

Thank you very much.