Briefing With Ambassador Philip T. Reeker On Readout From U.S.-EU Foreign Affairs Council Discussion

MR BROWN:  Hey, good afternoon, everyone.  As you know, Secretary Pompeo spoke on Monday by videoconference with EU High Representative Joseph Borrell and EU member state foreign ministers.  Secretary Pompeo took the opportunity to engage with his counterparts on a host of issues central to the robust transatlantic ties, including rebuilding our economies post COVID, upholding our shared commitment to democratic values that serve as the bulwark against Russian and PRC attempts to undermine democratic societies, reaffirming our collective resolve to uphold Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and exchanging views on developments in the Middle East.

Our Acting Assistant Secretary of State[1] for European and Eurasian Affairs Ambassador Phil Reeker was by the Secretary’s side during Monday’s discussion, and I’m grateful that he – we could impose on his time today to get his perspective on the conversation.  His comments will be on the record, and he’ll have time to answer your questions after a short opening statement.  A reminder that the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call.

Ambassador Reeker, please, go ahead.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Hey, thanks, Cale.  And hi, everybody.  Hope everybody is healthy and doing well in these continuing somewhat surreal times.  But here at the State Department we continue to be busy.  One of the great accomplishments for me and my team was being able to do this engagement with Secretary Pompeo with the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Union, something we’ve been trying to do for quite a while – for about a year – certainly since I came on board.  Of course, ideally we would do it in person at their committee table in Brussels, but made the most of it.  This time both sides acknowledged that we look forward to being able to get together more often.

I would point out that over the last several months, particularly while we’ve been responding to COVID, the Secretary has spoken to just about all of the foreign ministers of the EU – 27 EU member states and of course with High Representative Borrell.  They’ve spoken frequently on a whole range of issues.  We’ve tried to make the most without the visits, many of which had been planned before the COVID pandemic changed the way we do business.  We turned those into videoconferences and phone calls because, as both sides said, there are so many important issues in the transatlantic partnership.

So I’ll just mention that the format was fairly straightforward.  High Rep Borrell opened it up, again, underscoring this opportunity to exchange on the most important issues.  We did talk about China, of course, the Middle East, the Eastern Partnership – that is the EU’s Eastern Partnership – Ukraine and other countries – who is – conversation about Afghanistan, Serbia/Kosovo came up, Syria, work on security and defense, and really the whole range of issues.

The Secretary then made some opening remarks noting that it was a fitting time to get together 75 years after VE Day, which of course we celebrated in May, and underscored the decades where our values have bound us together and the great challenges we’ve overcome.

As the Secretary noted in Munich this year, the West really is winning when we work together as we have been in so many things, including what we’re doing to fight to the COVID pandemic, the EU and the U.S. governments being the two largest contributors to COVID-19 foreign assistance by far.  Some of the aid that we supplied to friends who are EU members to help them get through particularly challenging times, and of course the fact that President Trump and the European Commission President von der Leyen participated in the Global Vaccine Summit, raising almost $9 billion.  At the same time, one of the main themes was coordinating to drive the global economy recovery in the post-COVID era as well.  So once again underscoring we are together a powerful force for good in the world.

With that, why don’t I just turn it over to your questions.  And I know we never have enough time but appreciate the chance to talk with you all.  Thanks.

MR BROWN:  Okay, for our first question can you open the line of Matt Lee.



AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Hi, Matt.  How are you?

QUESTION:  Thank you.  I’m doing just fine.  I’m doing just fine.  Hope you are well, too.


QUESTION:  Thanks for doing this.  I have a couple questions.  I’ll make them real brief.  One, on the Mideast, I presume that you’re talking about the peace plan/annexation and possibly Iran.  If that’s the case, and I think it is, then these are areas of major disagreement between you guys and the Europeans, and I’m just wondering if any headway at all – if you can report any headway being made on either issue.

And then the other one is just on Germany and these alleged plans that – I don’t know – Kay Bailey Hutchison seem to really know about, but the troop withdrawal or redeployment from Germany.  Did that come up, and if so, what was the Secretary able to tell the Europeans?  Thanks.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Thanks, Matt.  Why don’t I start with that last one.  The – Germany and force posture decisions did not come up.  The – as we’ve said and of course the White House has said, the President’s made clear and certainly the Secretary underscored that in this engagement as well as so many others that we are very committed to working with allies.  That obviously includes Germany, one of our most important allies.  That includes issues like burden sharing and of course at NATO, and the defense ministerial is going on now, so I’d refer you over there.

But we really have made so much progress on NATO, not only on the burden sharing with 140 billion in additional funds as we move countries toward meeting their 2 percent commitments – the Wales pledge – but all of the other things we’ve done in terms of force posture and creating – taking on new challenges like China, like cyber, things we have to be thinking about; the forward-looking review process that we endorsed at the leaders meeting back in December and all we did last year in commemorating the first 70 years of NATO, as well as taking in NATO’s 30th member, North Macedonia.  Real progress on that.

In terms of Germany and force posture things, obviously I’d have to refer you over to the Pentagon and the White House on the specifics of that.  That’s the President’s role as Commander-in-Chief to assess force posture, doing that with the military.  But our broad engagement with Germany not only on security issues but just about every other major issue remains important, and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas of course was one of the ministers who spoke.  About half of them spoke at the FAC in the 90 minutes.  We had a number of them speak on behalf of several of their colleagues.  And he too noticed that – noted that Europe is United States’s closest ally, and as we often recognize, the EU itself exists thanks to wise U.S. policies post-war, and we are stronger and winning together.  So continue to discuss all those issues.

On the Middle East, it was a good chance to exchange views.  Obviously ongoing process there.  The Secretary reiterated the goals and hopes offered by the President’s Vision for Peace in the Middle East, the hope that the Palestinians would actually engage, consider that, and talk about opportunities there.  This is certainly an important part of the conversation with any of those countries.  There are risks with any decisions that are made, and that’s the goal of diplomacy, is to balance those risks and take these opportunities that we think have been put forward.

We noted as well – it was noted by several of the speakers that in fact we do have broadly the same goals with Iran.  You mentioned Iran.  Sometimes there are differences in tactics and we are able to discuss those, but strategically the goals and concerns about Iran – their support for terrorism, their efforts to develop nuclear weapons – all of us share the same goal there.  Thanks.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  For the next question, let’s go to the line of Nick Schifrin.

QUESTION:  Hey, Phil.  Thanks very much for doing this.  Appreciate it.  If I could follow up on Matt’s Germany question, I know that you won’t be able to engage on force posture, so let me just try and ask you something as – that you could engage on:  Do you believe that Germany is not living up to its commitments and therefore a slightly different strategic or even just numbers posture toward Germany is the right way to go right now?  And is there a chance right now to shift some of the focus, some of the U.S. resources, if you will, to Poland?  Would you advocate for that?  Thanks.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Look, again, in terms of actual force posture, I have to leave that to military colleagues to determine right up the chain of command.  As you know, I spent some time at European Command.  We in the European Bureau at State of course work closely with European Command on the diplomatic channel of these things.  With Germany, of course I have regular conversations with German colleagues.  We’ve got strong representation there at our mission in Berlin and five consulates around the country, as well as the military commands there.  I just couldn’t get into how you do the numbers, what the military experts think is best.  We’ve got a National Security Strategy which we’re – broadly guides us, and a National Defense Strategy which helps define things like force posture.  We focus on military mobility, compatibility.  The importance, of course, of burden-sharing is also about making sure that other countries, other allies, are well postured, are well prepared for any eventualities.

I think the COVID crisis showed us that NATO, which is a highly successful military and political alliance, also can be adapted to things like this, this kind of a crisis.  No one, I think, ever expected NATO to be focused on helping with a pandemic, but in fact the secretary general quickly mobilized NATO’s ability to source materiel, contracting, mobility, and they were able to support a number of allies, some of it with equipment, with medical assistance at times, and I think that’s an area they’ll continue to look at as well.

So I hope that gets to your question generally.  There’s a whole range of things that we’re, of course, working on with Germany, and we’re determined to find the right balances there, and obviously our military colleagues will be in touch with NATO.  As I said, I don’t want to get ahead of the defense ministerial that’s going on now.  I’m sure some of you are covering that, or your colleagues are.

MR BROWN:  Okay, for our next question let’s open the line of Nick Wadhams.

QUESTION:  Hi, Phil.  Thanks very much.  Interfax News Agency is reporting today that there are talks underway between the U.S. and Russia over a prisoner swap for Paul Whelan, Paul Whelan for Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko.  Can you talk about whether that’s the case and whether you’re still working to obtain his release?  Thanks.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  I think you saw certainly our statements about the so-called conviction of Paul Whelan, and I’d just refer you to the statements of Ambassador Sullivan and the Secretary on that.  It’s – I can’t comment on anything beyond that other than that we believe his conviction – a case that had so many flaws – was absolutely unacceptable.  So I’ll just leave it at that.

MR BROWN:  Okay, next question.  Let’s go to the line of Carol Morello.

QUESTION:  Hi, Phil.  Thank you for doing this.  Say, I was wondering if during the talks on Monday anyone raised any concerns that if President Trump wins reelection, it might mean that the U.S. is more likely to withdraw from NATO.  And also, if I may quickly – Mr. Borrell said afterwards that the U.S. – that the EU, even though it shares many of the U.S. concerns with China, does not want to pick sides.  So do you feel you need the EU as an ally with – in trying to pressure China, and what are you doing to try to convince them to join you?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  On your first question, the answer is no.  I was there for the entire session; nobody said that.  And on the question of China, which was a major topic of discussion, I think we share with our European partners the concerns about China.  As you’ve heard directly from him, High Representative Borrell talked about that.  The EU’s put out a number of statements in recent months in terms of China being a systemic rival, a competitor, always, of course, looking for ways where it could be a cooperative partner.  I think that very much mirrors our approach to China as well, and as you know, the Secretary has engaged in that outside of my purview and this bureau.  We also noted, recognized, that the Chinese are very happy to see or pursue the idea of the U.S. and the EU being divided.  So instead, we did talk about how much we are united in looking at these things, and I think the high representative referred to the idea of pursuing a U.S.-EU dialogue on China, and we look forward to doing so, sort of fleshing out some of the details of that and the different levels we’ll do that as part of our regular engagement and diplomacy on China.

I think the Secretary’s point was we’re not asking the EU to choose between or any of its member states to choose between China and the United States.  It’s the Chinese that are doing that.  The facts suggest a simple truth.  We aren’t the ones suggesting choose between Chinese authoritarianism and the free world, the West, what we’ve done together and continue to do – the largest trading relationship, the fundamental values that we all share.  It’s China that’s trying to force a decision on that.  And as the Chinese Communist Party tries to make the world safe for an authoritarian system, we are really more focused on the side of freedom, of defending the values that we have, the prosperity that we’ve shared, and that’s something we work on obviously very closely with the European Union and with all of its member states.

And so that’s – that was a big part of our discussion, but certainly not the only part.  We talked about what different countries have done.  A number of the ministers that intervened talked about their concerns about China, the various areas where we need to look at not only our recovery together from the COVID crisis and the economic recovery, but ensuring our resilience in the future, talking about things like supply chains, trusted vendors.  And of course, that ties also to conversations that we’ve been having for a long time with a number of our EU partners, and that would be the 5G information technology networks that can be trusted rather than those that are accessible to or make data accessible to the Chinese Communist Party.

So it was a good opportunity to discuss there.  I think we found that useful, and as indicated, we’re going to pursue that with more discussions through a dialogue focused on all the different facets of that relationship.  Over.

MR BROWN:  Great.  If you want to ask a question, go ahead and dial 1 and 0.  The last person in the queue right now is Jennifer Hansler.  Jennifer, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Hi, Ambassador.  Thanks for doing this.  I was wondering how much the World Health Organization factored into your conversations.  Borrell mentioned their disapproval of the U.S. decision to sever ties and said this was something they expected could be reconsidered.  Is it under reconsideration that the U.S. will leave the World Health Organization?  And then were there any specific conversations about punishments for China related to the coronavirus?  Were EU allies supportive of that potential move?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  The World Health Organization was mentioned in a number of points.  Our position on that I think is clear.  I won’t rehash that for you.  You’ve seen the review that we undertook, having been the largest donor and supporter of the World Health Organization for years, having outlined where the WHO really failed in its mission, and our decisions about future funding and engagement.  One of the great things about this kind of engagement with the FAC was an opportunity to share different views on that.  It’s no secret that other countries have not taken our decision or have suggested reconsidering.  I think we’re very comfortable where we are and what we will continue to do, and working with partners like the EU and its 27 member states to deal with these things and finding other ways where we can put our resources to make sure that it achieves what we want multilateral structures to achieve, that they defend and meet the needs that we have for them.  And that’s what we’ll keep doing.

So it was a good conversation in that sense.  As I indicated, we talked about the President and Ursula von der Leyen having both participated in the vaccine conference, fundraising for that over $9 billion – 9 billion dollars or euros?  I’d have to double check.  And so there’s a lot of cooperation there, as there, again, is in so many areas, even where we may have a difference in particular tactics or approaches, sometimes at the EU level, sometimes the individual member states.  It’s also worth knowing that the EU, like any gathering of 27 nations that come together, do not always have exactly the same views either.  So they use their Foreign Affairs Council meetings on a regular basis, even without the special guest of the U.S. Secretary of State, to discuss and debate and exchange differing views on how to tackle and approach some of these global challenges as well as their own internal matters.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  We’ve got a hard stop in about five minutes.  We’ll try to get through the next two, if that’s possible.  Next in the queue is Arshad Mohammed.

QUESTION:  Hi, Phil.


QUESTION:  Two quick things.  One:  Going back to Germany, I know you can’t talk about the numbers, but critics of the President’s announcement on Monday that he plans to cut troops, U.S. troops there by 9,500 down to 25,000, argue that that erodes faith in the U.S. Article 5 commitment, and also erodes deterrence of Russia or anyone else who might consider aggression toward a NATO member.  Why are they wrong?  And second:  Just practically, in Monday’s conversation, did each minister just kind of give a speech and then it was over, or was there any actual substantive interplay where they would talk and respond to one another rather than just reciting their talking points?

AMBASSADOR REEKER:  Hey, thanks, Arshad.  I’m really – I’m really glad you asked that because I did mean to sort of expand on that a little bit in my intro remarks.  One of the things we really wanted to design this for, particularly because it had to be this virtual engagement, was to avoid what can happen in such diplomatic engagements where you have an intervention followed by an intervention followed by an intervention.  And instead, we structured it so that there were introductory remarks – very brief, really – by first the high rep, who of course was the host, then by Secretary Pompeo who was invited to make some intro remarks, and then we went back and forth.

So several foreign ministers in a row might make an intervention, as I said, several of them on behalf of their – of some colleagues, some of them did it in groups.  I think about – in the end, about half of the ministers ended up taking the – I want to say take the floor, but taking the mike.  And then we would go back, and the Secretary was invited to comment, respond, make some additional points, and we had topics – China, obviously, Middle East peace, Eastern Partnership –  and then several of them raised other issues.  And it gave the Secretary an opportunity to have a little more of a conversational approach, and that was I think, again, very useful, and underscored the very high level of goodwill, the sort of positive tone there, as the – one of the first speakers said what is thought to divide us makes headlines, what unites us is what makes progress in the world.  And we took that to heart.

To your first question, I think anyone that thinks that faith in an alliance or commitments, or deterrents in the broad sense, is based on sort of static numbers of troops ignores, first of all, history, but certainly ignores the changes and adaptations of the alliance and that the transatlantic security architecture, which has been successful for 70 years as NATO, 75 years since defeating fascism in Europe – I think some would say wildly successful – is its ability to adapt and change and look at different approaches.  And all of that is done in any of these decisions about force posture and troop numbers.  There’s nothing that says X number is what indicates a particular level of commitment.

I mean, some of us are actually old enough to remember when there were a quarter of a million troops in – U.S. troops that is – in Europe, when lines were very different, when threats were very different.  Now we face, as we’ve talked about, a variety of different things.  Dealing with cyber threats, dealing with disinformation is a big challenge, that is not addressed by the number of forces in any particular country within the alliance or how that’s structured.

So I think it just takes a little more sophisticated looking at this and discussion.  Everybody’s free to offer their views on this – plenty of armchair analysts and experts – and they may be heartfelt views, but I think we take these things very seriously.  Our military right through the chain of command, looks at this very closely, and of course we’ll consult with allies.  And as I said, you’ve got the NATO defense ministerial going on right now.

So I think I’ve got to cut out there.  But thank you all and continued good health and good moods, and look forward to being in touch when we can maybe do this in person again sometime.  Thanks, Cale.

MR BROWN:  Thanks, Ambassador Reeker, appreciate it.  And thanks to everyone for joining.  Sorry we couldn’t get to the last question, but we do have a hard stop.  As this is the end of the call, the embargo on the contents is lifted, and hopefully we’ll see you on the next call.