December 5, 2016: Ambassador Lute’s Pre-Ministerial Telephonic Press Briefing

 Ambassador Douglas Lute

U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO

Moderator – Peter Kaufman

Telephonic Press Briefing

December 5, 2016


Moderator:  Thank you very much, and greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State.  I’d like to welcome our participants dialing in from across Europe.  Thank you all for joining this discussion today.

Today we are pleased to be joined once again from Brussels by Ambassador Douglas Lute, the U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO.  As you know, this week is the NATO Foreign Ministerial, so this is a very timely discussion.  And we thank you, Ambassador Lute, for taking the time to speak with us today.

We’ll begin today’s call with opening remarks from Ambassador Lute and then we will turn over to your questions and we will try to get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have which is approximately 40 minutes, until 11:45 Brussels time.  As a reminder, today’s call is on the record.

With that, I’ll turn it over to Ambassador Lute.

Ambassador Lute:  Thanks Peter, and welcome to all those who have dialed in.

As you know, it’s our convention to discuss with the media just before these periodic ministerial meetings where NATO has been and where it’s going, so this ministerial very much fits in that pattern.

Just a touch of context here.  We’re almost precisely five months since the Warsaw Summit in July when our 28 leaders took some very key decisions.  You’ll recall, if you’ve been watching NATO over that five-month period that there were two key themes that came out of the Warsaw Summit.

First of all, the leaders addressed how we would secure ourselves inside NATO’s borders, if you will.  So these are inside the boarders defined by the treaty, the Atlantic Treaty, the Washington Treaty, and we refer to these as our Article 5 boundaries.  These are the areas where Article 5, the Mutual Defense Clause, applies.  And the main output from the summit inside our borders was this theme of deterrence and defense and dialogue.  And what that essentially means is NATO will do what is required to defend our populations, to provide security for our 28 allies.  But we’re also open to dialogue.

And second of all, the second key theme coming out of Warsaw, and this one will in particular play out over the next two days here at the Foreign Ministers meeting, has to do with NATO’s responsibilities, its role beyond those Article 5 borders.  So this extends to NATO’s role around NATO’s periphery to the north, south, east and west extending as far out as Afghanistan.

And the key thing here beyond our borders is that NATO appreciates that the more stable our neighbors, and the more stability on our periphery, the more secure NATO itself.

So this is very much a ministerial having to do with how we project stability beyond our borders into our periphery.  And as I said, you’ll see in particular the second projecting stability theme crop up again and again as I described the ministerial.

Now NATO also knows that as we go through a summit once every two years or so that these summits are large decision-making exercises.  So leaders take a lot of decisions, they reach agreements and so forth.  But the hard work really follows the summit, and that’s putting these decisions into action.  That’s the period we’re in right now, just five months after the Warsaw Summit.  We’re very much into the execution or implementation phase, and this is the tough phase.  This taking stock of what leaders agreed and then actually figuring out how to do it on the ground.  So you also see a healthy dose of implementation as we go through not only this ministerial but coming ministerials early next year.

I would say that, my last point in terms of context, this will be Secretary John Kerry’s last NATO meeting as the Secretary of State.  Along with the rest of the Obama administration he’ll transition out of office by January 20th of next year.  So this is the last ministerial between now and then.

He’ll be coming to Brussels from Berlin, and after the Ministerial on Wednesday he’ll be traveling to Hamburg where the OSCE is also holding a ministerial.  So he’ll be coming from Berlin and going to Hamburg.

Over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday there are a total of five sessions, and I’ll just quickly outline those and then we’ll get to your questions.

The first one is perhaps the most important in terms of concrete deliverables.  That is the meeting that takes on the question of NATO’s relationship with the European Union.  Our view is that NATO and the EU should be the most natural partners. I say this because they share values.  They share 22 common members.  So 22 of the 28 allies are also members of the EU.  And obviously, they share geography and common challenges.  All these challenges require cooperation.  So neither NATO nor the EU can do everything that needs doing, alone.  And they can obviously gain a great deal by cooperating.

So what can be done?  As you go back to the Warsaw Summit, the NATO-EU leaders agreed, that is Secretary Stoltenberg and Council President Tusk and Commission President Juncker, agreed in a Leaders Declaration that outlined the sorts of areas in which NATO and the EU could cooperate.  And what we’ve now done five months later is fill in sort of the details of each of those areas of cooperation.

All total in the last five months we’ve agreed on about 40 discreet, concrete elements of cooperation.  Let me just give you a few examples here so that we’re not just talking about theory.  I’ll give you a sense of the sorts of things that NATO and the EU can share in the future.

First of all, we’ve agreed that we share responsibility for the resilience of our common members.

We’ve agreed to participate in a new European Center for Countering Hybrid Threats hosted by Finland.

We’ve agreed to share time-sensitive information between the EU Fusion Cell and its NATO counterparts.  So these are the two small cells inside the NATO and the EU that watch hybrid threats around our common space.

We’ve agreed to synchronize the two Crisis Response Systems.  And we’ve agreed that we will coordinate both sets of experts who are on call to support member states in a crisis.  So there’s a number of things there having to do with national resilience.

We’ve also agreed to take further steps with regard to cyber defense.  So for example in 2017, we’re going to cooperate on training, cooperate on cyber defense standards, and also cooperate on cyber exercises.

We’ve agreed to move forward on maritime security.  So as some of you will be aware, we’re cooperating now in the Eastern Aegean. We’re going to extend that cooperation to the Central Mediterranean next year.  And by the end of this year, NATO will coordinate logistics support and information sharing between our naval forces in the Mediterranean and the EU’s Operation Sophia in the Central Med.

Further, exercises.  You’ll appreciate that both institutions have their own independent exercise programs.  Now for the first time we’ve agreed beginning next year to bring these two exercises together and run parallel coordinated exercises.  What that means is that for example in 2017 NATO will take the lead in an exercise and the EU will exercise in a parallel way.  And the following year, 2018, the EU will assume the lead in a parallel exercise.  This means each institution will invite observers to the others’ exercises, and we’ll share lessons and so forth.

We’ve also agreed, yet another area to work together more closely in building capacity for partner states.  And this means sort of concrete, on-the-ground cooperation in places like the Western Balkans, Georgia, Moldova, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, and so forth.  This kind of cooperation has gone on in the past, in particular in Afghanistan, where the NATO mission and the EU mission have close ties.  But we think we can extend that cooperation to other partner states.

So there’s a lot to do here.  The key I think across all these different areas, these different categories of cooperation, is that we can both be more effective.  Both NATO and the EU can be more effective if we complement one another, and we should absolutely agree that competition is inefficient and unnecessary.  So the by-words here are complement, not compete.

That’s all in the first session tomorrow afternoon.

In the second session, NATO will go back to just the allies.  So High Rep(resentative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) Mogherini who will have been in the first session will go back to her job at the EU, and NATO will talk about projecting stability as an alliance itself.  So the first session is in teamwork with the EU; the second session takes a hard look at what we can do internally with regard to projecting stability.

You know, projecting stability is not something that NATO invented at Warsaw.  This is not new to the alliance.  You can argue that NATO’s been in this business of trying to make our neighbors more stable since its early operations in the Balkans, more than 20 years ago.  So our mission that continues in Kosovo, for example, today; and our mission later in Afghanistan are really projecting stability missions.

We think there’s more we can do here.  Ministers will talk about NATO’s support to the Counter ISIL Coalition, which is underway.  We’ll talk about assisting the European Union on illegal migration, control of illegal migration.  They’ll talk about working in some of our key partner countries, partner states to the east — Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova.  To the south, Iraq, Jordan.  Across North Africa and so forth.

We’ll also spend some time in this second session on the Western Balkans.  Here, of course, NATO’s got at least a 20-year history of being engaged, and today, 20 years after NATO’s intervention in Bosnia, there’s still unfinished business in the Western Balkans region.

Of course three states now in that region are allies — Croatia, Slovenia and Albania.  Montenegro is in the process of becoming our 29th ally.  And there are two other aspirants — Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia.

This region as a whole though is not yet finished business for NATO so we have work to do there, and we think Ministers will take account of that in the second session tomorrow afternoon.

Tomorrow night’s dinner focuses on NATO-Russia relations, and here we expect at the two-and-a-half-year mark after these same Foreign Ministers took a decision to recast NATO’s relationship with Russia, to take stock of the last two and a half years.  This is fundamentally this policy of both strength and dialogue with regard to Russia.  They’ll take stock of the pattern of NATO-Russia Council meetings that have emerged, the last one being in July, just after the Warsaw Summit.  And I think the reality here is again, we will just reaffirm our appreciation that geography will not change.  That Russia will remain our largest, most militarily capable neighbor.  And that a very prudent, responsible approach is to couple strength with the willingness, an openness to dialogue.

That takes us through Tuesday.

On Wednesday, there are two meetings focused on key NATO partners.  I won’t go into detail here.  I’ll come back if you have questions.  The first of those two sessions is the NATO-Ukraine Commission, and here Foreign Minister Klimkin will join the 28 and with Montenegro, 29 member states and discuss NATO’s continuing support in Ukraine.

Then the last session, this now is the end of the morning on Wednesday, is the Resolute Support Mission meeting.  This, of course, is NATO’s ongoing mission in Afghanistan.  The Foreign Ministers will be joined by Foreign Minister Rabbani from Afghanistan, but also Ministers from across the Resolute Support Coalition, which at last count is nearly 40 Ministers including allies and partners.

So in sum, that’s the five meetings.  I think the important thing to remember here is that five months after Warsaw we’re into the execution phase, so when we talk about the detail of NATO-EU cooperation or the details of how NATO is going to project stability beyond its borders, then what we’re really doing is following up on what we said we were going to do at Warsaw, and really fulfilling what our member states expect of the alliance which is that we’re going to take deliberate, responsible actions to abide by the treaty, abide by our international commitments, and make our nations more secure.

So let me stop there and Peter, if you want to orchestrate the Q&A we’re ready to go.

Moderator:  Thank you, Ambassador, for those remarks.  We’ll now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.

Our first question today comes from James Robbins of the BBC.

BBC:  My question, Ambassador, thank you very much for your very clear presentation.

You talked about projecting stability and I wondered if I could ask you in the political context, since NATO is obviously a political as well as a military alliance, how easy it is for NATO to project stability when some of its members are nervous about the alliance’s willingness to defend them, about the Article 5 commitment.  This was put in question by President-Elect Trump as a candidate during the recent election.  And how nervous they are because they know that Russia has drawn strength not only from the unpredictability of the next administration but also from what Russia judges to be greater and greater inherent political weaknesses within Europe.  Not least, of course, the forced resignation of the Italian Prime Minister as a result of his referendum.  A feeling in Moscow that the European Union is probably one of the weakest points in its history.  Britain is leaving.  And that NATO is also weakened by everything that I’ve talked about.

Ambassador Lute:  Everybody appreciates the campaign rhetoric that has sort of flavored American politics over the last year or so, but the reality is that administration after administration in the United States, both sides of the political parties in Congress, have for almost 70 years now, had one bipartisan, strong, persistent agreement, and that is that NATO stands as a very important investment for America, but equally important for Europe.

So we certainly expect that as the new administration forms its team and takes office on January 20th, that that longstanding tradition, that longstanding cornerstone of American security policy -NATO- will be just as important going forward as it has been in the past.

There’s no question that our European allies in particular are facing challenges today.  I’ve talked about some of these not only political transitions but terrorism, mass migration.  Actually, the lingering effects of the 2008 global recession as well.  And when you sum these up, when you compile these, that’s a pretty substantial challenge for any organization.

I think the EU will find its way. We have confidence in the EU to first of all, abide by its values; but second of all, to find its way as an institution that binds together all its member states.

So this is why in the first session tomorrow, this is why NATO-EU cooperation is so very, very important right now.  In particular, the EU is facing these challenges.  NATO has responsibilities here for security in Europe as well, and we think there’s plenty of room for cooperation.

So I think it’s time to get beyond the rhetoric of NATO-EU cooperation and move to practical cooperation, and I think we’re going to take a big step forward tomorrow in that regard.

Moderator:  Thank you very much.

Our next question this morning comes from Ms. Sabine Siebold from Thomson Reuters.  She has submitted her question in writing.  I’ll read it now.

Thomson Reuters:  Mr. Ambassador, Turkey has refused to extend the NATO mission in the Aegean at the last NATO Defense Minister’s meeting in October.  Can you tell us if NATO has found a solution for the extension of the mission yet, or if it will have to end in January?

Ambassador Lute:  We don’t believe the mission will end in January, but we also don’t have a defined end date yet.  We think that the mission in the Eastern Aegean which is, was commissioned actually in February of last year by Defense Ministers, has been useful.  It’s had an effect.  If nothing more, it has brought together NATO capabilities alongside the EU’s Frontex organization and alongside both the Greek and the Turkish Coast Guards in an effective way.  So you have these four organizations now working together in that sea space between the Turkish western shore and the easternmost Greek islands.

And if you look at the data, the data shows that illegal migration in that space has decreased dramatically.  Now I’m not claiming complete success there on behalf of the NATO mission, but we think NATO’s contributed to that dramatic decrease in illegal migration.

So we don’t have an end date for the mission.  Negotiations are ongoing in terms of the future of the mission.  It will not end on December 31st.  It will be sustained into 2017.  And we still have work underway in terms of defining its ultimate duration.

But so far, so good.  We think it’s been effective and we’re working with all the allies in terms of its future.

Moderator:  Thank you.  For our next question we’ll turn it over to Igor Kryuchkov from Gazeta.Ru.  Go ahead, sir.

Gazeta.Ru:  Good morning.  My name is Igor Kryuchkov from  Gazeta.Ru.  Once again, thanks for the presentation.

My question is both, well first, a practical question.  Do you have any information on the ongoing new NATO-Russia Council?  Is there any information about when it’s going to be and how it’s going to be managed?

And the second part of my question is about the expectations from NATO-Russia relations after President Putin has said during his last address about the perspectives of being more positive to the U.S.?  And Mr. Trump’s remarks on Russia also.  So do you have any expectations that NATO-Russia relations will change starting from 2017?

Thanks a lot.

Ambassador Lute:  To the first part of your question having to do with the NATO-Russia Council.  So you’ll appreciate that the NATO-Russia Council has remained, even at this point of tension, during this period of tension between NATO and Russia, has remained as an open political channel for engagement, just as the NATO-Russia Council was designed many years ago.

So it has served us well in these last several years as military activities on both sides have increased; as tensions have increased.  The NRC, as we call it, has been a very useful forum for us to meet with Ambassador Alexander Grushko, our Russian colleague, and discuss these things in a formatted, mutually respectful, reciprocal manner.

I think the NRC will continue to serve that role.  There’s an ongoing discussion now about the next NATO-Russia Council.  We don’t yet have a date.  It’s not yet on the calendar.  But there’s an ongoing, active discussion just as there is before every NRC meeting about timing and the precise agenda and so forth.

So actually, I think the NRC has been useful and I expect it will continue to play that role in the future.

This is an important part of, as I said, NATO’s approach being both strength and dialogue.  The NRC is what we mean when we say dialogue with Russia.

With regard to forecasting for the next administration, I don’t have any predictions.  I won’t make any forecasts in that regard.  I think that as the new administration forms its team, it will settle in on an approach to Russia and we’ll just have to see how that unfolds.

Moderator:  Thank you, sir.

For our next question we’ll turn it over to James Robbins from the BBC.  Go ahead, sir.

BBC:  Thank you very much for allowing me to come back.

Ambassador, just picking up from what you just said, and what you said to me earlier in this conversation, you talked about expecting something very positive to come out particularly I think of the NATO-EU discussions.  Can you tell us a bit about what that might or should be?  And also, how do you reconcile that hope for progress with the possibility of the EU trying to move faster towards internal defense cooperation even extending to the EU Army, which many see as a potential threat, not a complementarity to NATO.

Ambassador Lute:  I’ve described in some detail a set of concrete items or concrete areas where NATO and the EU have agreed to move forward in cooperation.  The most positive part of the discussion tomorrow, early afternoon, will be that we’ve actually moved beyond kind of the outline, the leaders’ outline at Warsaw, and we’ve actually now complemented that outline, or beefed up that outline with concrete items of cooperation.  So particular exercises, particular coordination between the two institutions.  So that’s, I think, very positive.

And I think that’s the sign for the future.  Because as NATO and the EU share the kinds of challenges we face, share the 22 today, the 22 common members and so forth, there’s a lot of room for cooperation.

With regard to the — I’m sorry, the second part of your question?   I think I missed that.

BBC:  Sorry.  It’s not a new issue, it’s arguably an old one, but there continues to be a political argument within the European Union that it should develop greater internal defense cooperation including potentially the formation of some form of European Union Army which is seen by many as a conflict, not a complementarity to NATO.

Ambassador Lute:  Right.  First of all, I think the European Union leadership, most probably prominently High Rep Mogherini, has been quite clear that they’re not talking, the EU is not imagining a European Army, but rather discreet capabilities where European Union member states can come together, cooperate on defense capabilities and so forth, all within an eye toward complementing NATO’s parallel process.

So there’s a set of defense capabilities that arguably both organizations can use, and if developed here in Europe to a more complete extent, could actually be used by either organization.  So they’re essentially looking at capabilities like say air-to-air refueling or strategic airlift which if available in one organization could be shared with the other.  So that’s what I mean by complement.  These are complementary or maybe dual-purpose capabilities.

The NATO position and the U.S. position on this is that a stronger EU, stronger European allies that have these capabilities is good news for the alliance, it’s good news for the United States, and it’s certainly good news for the EU.

Now if EU capability development were to move into a realm of competing with NATO, though, we would be alert to that and that would draw our concern.  Because we don’t think that there are sufficient resources here to be redundant or to be inefficient.  There’s plenty of work to do together, but they have to complement, not compete.

So we’ve actually looked carefully and we’ve ready carefully, listened carefully to what EU leaders have said on this, and so far, so good.  We’re comfortable that they’re moving towards complementarity and not competition.

Moderator:  Thank you very much.

For our next question we’ll turn it back over to Mr. Igor Kryuchkov from Gazeta.Ru.   Go ahead, sir.

Gazeta.Ru:  My question is about, you said before you have, NATO I mean, have some unfinished business in the Western Balkans.  Can you elaborate a bit about the current projects of NATO there?  Thanks.

Ambassador Lute:  As I explained, there are three NATO allies in the Western Balkans region, and there are two additional states — Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia — who aspire to membership.  So certainly with regard to those two aspirant states, NATO has a very close relationship, a very close partnership, and we’re doing what we can to help them move towards fulfilling their goals, which is eventually to become members of NATO.  So in that way we have more work to do.  We have unfinished business in the region.

But more broadly, even if we move beyond NATO allies and NATO aspirant states, the Western Balkans represents an area which has traditionally suffered from instability and internal challenges, and what we at NATO recognize is that instability there can easily migrate into the NATO member states themselves.

So when we say we wish to project stability it means that in the Western Balkans, for example, the more stable relationship we have there, in that relatively small region, the better it is for NATO.

And I say unfinished business because this story began in 1995, at least, for NATO when NATO moved into and intervened in Bosnia.  So our project that began there more than 20 years ago continues to this day.

Now in a very different form.  You may remember in ’95 NATO sent 60,000 troops into Bosnia.  Certainly that’s not the case today.  But both in terms of political engagement with Western Balkan states, but also partnership on military development, defense reform, training, exercises, schools, and so forth, NATO still has a continuing role to play down there.

And I think what you’ll see by way of the second session tomorrow, that is the one labeled projecting stability, is that there will be an appreciation among NATO Ministers that we still have work to do in the Western Balkans.

Moderator:  Thank you very much.

For our next question we’ll turn it over to Elizabeth Palmer, CBS News.  Go ahead, please.

CBS:  Good morning.

I’m wondering about money.  You talked about resources and with an increasingly belligerent Russia and ambitious plans to cooperate with the EU, you’re probably short of money.  I wonder — or at least wishing you had more.

Is there going to be any initiative to try and get the countries that don’t meet the NATO guideline on financing, to meet it?  And I’m thinking in particular one egregious example is Canada.  And maybe aided by President-Elect Trump’s having focused on that issue during the campaign.

Ambassador Lute:  Even before this last presidential campaign NATO was very focused on this issue of resources, because all of what I’ve described, whether it’s deterrence and defense internal to NATO or trying to project stability beyond our borders, doesn’t come free and requires resources.  And you’ll appreciate that more than two years ago NATO set for itself the standard, at leaders’ level.  So President Obama, for example, at the table for the U.S., a 10-year program.  And this 10-year program basically said everybody, all 28, need to move towards and attain the goal of 2 percent of GDP committed to defense spending.

So we’re essentially two years today, two years into a 10-year program.  How are we doing?

Well, the reality is that only five NATO allies today are at the two percent standard; but also the reality is that since we started this project two years ago, 22 allies have actually reversed a more than 10-year decline in defense budgets and have, as we say, turned the corner.  And last year for the first year in at least 10 years, we saw a real increase in defense spending by 22 allies.

So we have a long way to go.  It is, after all, a 10-year program.  But there are at least early reasons, two years in, there are early reasons for some optimism that NATO allies are taking the hard budget decisions, national budget decisions required to invest appropriately in defense.

So we’re still in the early days and there’s much more work to be done.  But we do think we have a program.  We think that for the first time in NATO’s history the program was agreed at head of state and government level, not simply the Ministers level, and we think we’ve got some early momentum.

Moderator:  Thank you.  We have time for just one more question.  It will go to James Robbins of the BBC once again.  Go ahead, sir.

BBC:  You maybe rarely hear this from a journalist, Ambassador, but you actually just answered my final question in that last answer about the details of financing, so I’m not going to press for you to indulge me anymore.  Thank you very much.

Ambassador Lute:  Wow!  Historical.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Ambassador, did you have any closing words you’d like to offer before we end today’s call?

Ambassador Lute:  No, I don’t think so.  I think the journalists on the call will be alert to the different readouts in the course of the next two days.  As you know, the Secretary General has a convention of sort of giving in-progress reviews during the two-day ministerial, so I encourage you to listen carefully to what he reports.  But I think you’ll find that this key theme of NATO-EU cooperation and second of all this theme of how can NATO make its neighborhood, its neighbors, those states on its periphery, more stable, are going to be the two main story lines coming out of the next two days’ ministerial.

So thanks very much for everyone participating, and we’ll see you around campus.

Moderator:  Thank you very much, Ambassador Lute for joining us, and thanks to all of you for participating and for your questions today.  A digital recording of today’s call will be available for 24 hours.