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Europe and Eurasia: Remarks at the Atlantic Council's NATO Transformation Seminar 2015

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, Fred, thank you very, very much for an overly generous introduction, and let me just say at the outset that it is particularly wonderful to be here with you and to just take note of everything that you’ve done with the Atlantic Council to create and recreate, really, one of the most vital institutions in Washington, and indeed beyond. And I think today’s events and yesterday’s events are testimony to that as well. So I’m gratefully – I’m especially grateful to be joined by Secretary General Stoltenberg. It’s an honor to share this table with you, as well as Jean-Paul Palomerosand particularly all of the ambassadors, generals, distinguished guests. Thank you for this opportunity to join you at a very important forum at a very important moment.

The focus of what you’ve been doing for the last couple of days – the readiness of NATO’s forces, the strength of our commitments, the unity of our efforts, is a great concern and a priority for every country that is represented at this table, and that’s true whether we’re in Washington, whether we’re in Brussels, whether in Berlin, whether in Warsaw, or points in between. I just got back from a week in Europe, a very productive trip. It went, if you follow the geography, from Paris to Chisinau, to London, to Berlin, to Kyiv. So there was obviously something wrong with our planning, but it was very important to be there at this particular time. We discussed a lot of common priorities from trade to energy, but a major topic was the importance of transatlantic unity as we collectively address Russian aggression in Ukraine.

I was in Berlin and a student asked me, “Why are you so focused on Ukraine? Why does it actually matter? Russia’s actions don’t pose a threat to you; they don’t really pose a threat to Germany. What’s so important about what’s happening in Ukraine?” And so I tried to explain that our concern in the first instance was helping a European state attain its democratic aspirations, that Ukraine is not whole if its people are not free. If the country is not at peace, then in some fundamental sense neither is Europe.

But I also explained that as each of you know, the crisis that we’re facing now goes beyond Ukraine and beyond even Europe. As Russia and the separatists that it backs descend on eastern Ukraine, they’re doing more even than violating the borders of one country. They are threatening the principles on which the transatlantic partnership was founded and upon which the international order we seek to build depends. Moscow’s actions, from manufacturing the phony Maidan-in-reverse in eastern Ukraine, deploying thousands of heavy weapons and troops across the border, to supporting a reign of violence through the separatists that it controls – they threaten to set a new precedent whereby basic principles are up for debate.

These principles, that the borders and territorial integrity of a democratic state cannot be changed by force; that is – it is the inherent right of citizens in a democracy to make their country’s decisions and determine its future; that linguistic nationalism, something we thought was confined to the dustbin of history, must not be allowed to be resurrected; and that all members of the international community are bound by common rules and should face costs if they don’t live up to the solemn commitments they make – and I want to pause on this last one for just a second because it resonates particularly and in interesting ways in the context of the Ukraine crisis.

As all of you know very well, when the Soviet Union dissolved, it left successor states, three of which had nuclear weapons – Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine – thousands of nuclear weapons. One of the great achievements of the Clinton administration and of our European partners at the time was to convince those successor states to give up the nuclear weapons they inherited. And of course in the case of Ukraine, that required a solemn vow and commitment from three countries to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty – the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia. That we would allow that commitment to be trampled upon not only does a grave injustice to Ukraine, but think about what it says at this very moment when, as we speak, our Secretary of State, the secretaries of state from our major partners are working to convince Iran to forego nuclear weapons. It would be understandable that Iran would want certain assurances in order to do that. What does it say to Iran today when a commitment like the one that was made in the Budapest memorandum is grossly violated?

So this crisis in Ukraine resonates in ways that go far beyond even Ukraine and even Europe. So with so much at stake, it is imperative in our judgment that we continue to stand together to affirm these principles, to end the conflict peacefully, to restore Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. And the best way to do that is through full and comprehensive adherence to the September Minsk agreements and to the February Minsk implementation plan that President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel did such a good job in negotiating.

I want to emphasize one point here. The most critical step in that plan is the last step – the restoration of Ukraine’s international border. Until that is done, this crisis will not be resolved because Russia will have the ability until that is done, at will, to turn up the volume, to pour troops and arms back across the border and into Ukraine. And so until that last step is completed, it’s imperative that we sustain the pressure on Russia, that we continue to support Ukraine, and if Russia continues to violate its obligations, then we should increase the costs.

Let me emphasize – and I think I speak for everyone here – this is not something that any of us wanted. This is not something that any of us want to continue, unless we have to. It is our most fervent desire that everyone comply with the Minsk agreement and that we’re able to start to roll back the sanctions and the pressure and try to get back to a more normal and more cooperative relationship. But again, until there is compliance, we need to keep the pressure on.

We also know, of course, the threats to our transatlantic community do not just come from the east. Together, we are working to confront violent extremism, foreign fighters, and the specter of ISIL – or Daesh. And the challenge here is twofold: We have to counter extremism, but we also have to work to prevent it, and of course this is a mission that goes beyond the mandate of NATO, but is highly relevant. We have to defeat the hard core of extremists who are simply beyond the reach of reason, and in many ways, actually, together, that’s exactly what we’re doing, including, as we speak, in Iraq. And that of course has a very significant military component and counterterrorism component, interrupting foreign fighters, the financing, et cetera.

But we also have to reach a much larger pool of people who are susceptible to the siren call of extremism – people who may be alienated from their communities and their countries, who may face governance that is abusive or corrupt, who lack opportunity, who lack some positive perspective for the future. And this is a much larger and more complicated project.

We had a very interesting summit in Washington about a month ago on countering violent extremism, and it looked at both parts of the problem – that is, countering the actual extremists who are committing violent acts today, but also this larger prevention agenda which is so critical. And many of our countries are working together in the months ahead to flesh out that part of the agenda as well. And to look at the experiences that so many of us have had because in some country, in some place there’s probably an approach developed to one aspect of the problem that actually works, and part of the task is making sure that we’re sharing the information and best practices.

One very quick example: I think as all of you know, when it comes to foreign fighters, one of the main modes of radicalization is in prison. Two of the three Charlie Hebdo attackers were common criminals who went to jail and became radicalized in prison. And different countries have different experiences with this, and some countries have been more successful than others in dealing with the problem of radicalization in prison. So that’s just one example of the more we can share common perspectives and information, the better off we’ll be.

But when you think of all of this and put it together, whether it’s ISIL or whether it’s Ukraine, I think it’s a call to us to take important steps to strengthen our collective defense. It’s a reminder of the dangers of complacency, of neglecting our responsibilities in defense, of taking basic principles for granted. And it’s a reminder of why NATO was founded 66 years ago – out of the carnage of war, an alliance committed to peace through security. It enshrined every member with responsibility over our collective defense. It established every member, in effect, as a frontline state, and of course it’s worked. It’s allowed us to build a global system – not just a European system, but a global system of commerce, of democratic governance, and inclusive development that provides an entry point to literally every nation and its citizens. We set an example for others, and increasingly we’ve translated our collective security beyond our common borders – greater stability and security in Afghanistan thanks to NATO and our partners; a peaceful, developing southeastern Europe; and we’ve seen decline in piracy off the coast of Africa.

But we had a decade, of course, of NATO defining itself by how it led in other parts of the world. The standing of our alliance at home and in Europe I think now has to be foremost again in our minds. The strength of our alliance, its legacy is simply not inevitable; it requires significant upkeep. And just when we need it most, there are some signs of fraying that we have to be very serious about addressing.

I know these points get repeated over and over again, but I think they bear yet one more repetition, and it’s important. In the early 1990s, our European allies spent 2.5 percent of GDP on average on defense. Today, it’s about 1.6 percent. Over the past decade, the U.S. share of total NATO defense spending has risen from 64 percent to 70 percent. This is increasingly not only economically but not politically sustainable. Only four allies currently meet NATO defense investment requirements, and six members are potentially moving in the wrong direction, trimming their budgets.

We know that the targets we’ve set stretch the capacity of many of us, but I think it’s important to focus on the fact that we’re not talking about an arbitrary percentage or dollars for dollars’ sake, or euros for euros’ sake. What we’re trying to do together is to make sure that we have the means and the interoperability to continue to act together effectively and to adjust and adapt to evolving threats. The bottom line is that if NATO is to remain the most powerful and effective alliance the world has ever known, then all 28 must maintain the Wales commitments. We have to meet the 2 percent GDP benchmark by 2024 with one-fifth dedicated to new equipment. We have to shift new spending toward investments for the future, not just legacy costs like pensions. We have to ensure persistent rotational land, sea, and air presence along NATO’s eastern edge. We have to adapt a defensive posture to counter emerging challenges in the east and in the south, and we believe we must maintain NATO’s open door to nations that meet our high standards.

We take these commitments very, very seriously. Today, American troops are forward-deployed from the Baltic to the borders of Turkey to defend the security of every NATO ally, just as we would our own. The European Reassurance Initiative that the President advanced, $1 billion in addition to strengthen the alliance, to bolster the defense capabilities and capacities of allies and partners, including Ukraine, including Georgia, including Moldova. In the near future, and indeed as we speak, many allies are reviewing strategic defense and security plans. It’s not just about targets and budgets. These reviews will have real consequences, and I think it’s no exaggeration to say that the future of the alliance hangs in the balance.

Beyond NATO, we have to continue to fortify the broader transatlantic space. We have to maintain and strengthen our defenses, even as we invest in the roots of our strength – in our economies, in our democracies, and indeed in our global leadership. We have to deepen our core partnerships even as we seek to expand relations with and build capacity of emerging partners who share our values.

So how do we accomplish this? Just a few thoughts in conclusion: First, promoting deeper transatlantic economic integration is vital to our common security in the broadest sense of the term, and there’s no better opportunity to do that than to work swiftly toward an ambitious Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement. This is about supporting Europe’s fight for inclusive growth as it continues to recover from the hangover of the Eurozone crisis. The U.S. and the EU already account for one-third of total goods and services and nearly half of global economic output. TTIP, as we call it, will energize this growth by increasing exports by tens of billions of dollars and adding to the already 13 million jobs that transatlantic trade and investment support. And these are not just economic gains. There are profound geopolitical efforts that extend from a common embrace of 21st century rules and 21st century values.

Another area where working together to strengthen the transatlantic space is so critical is in the area of energy security for Europe. Everyone remembers the gas crisis of 2009, and even more immediate in our collective consciousness is the concern about the most recent crisis with Russia and the impact that that could have on our common energy security. In 2009, we all remember Russian gas flows through Ukraine were halted for nearly two weeks, and the specter of a repeat has been hanging over us this past winter.

There is a stark, cold reminder of the old days when dependence on one source meant never knowing whether the gas would keep flowing. Energy security, diversified resources, diversified routes, diversified suppliers is critical to strengthening the transatlantic space. And the good news is we’ve made significant strides just in the past year. A year ago, the Baltics were virtually an energy island entirely dependent on a single supplier for all their electricity and natural gas needs in terms of imports. Now they are on track to be one of the most integrated energy regions by the end of this decade. We have completed the Estonia-Finnish undersea cable, we built new floating LNG facilities in Lithuania, we’ve made progress on the gas interconnector between Poland and Lithuania. And it’s critical, I think, that we take this approach with a number of other strategically located infrastructure improvements, including pipelines, electric grids, the integration of renewals.

Finally, in terms of strengthening our own space, continuing to lead together globally is vital, as we have when humanitarian crises like Ebola have overwhelmed developing nations and posed a widespread risk; as we have confronting global challenges like climate change that will require historic course corrections; and as we have to preserve the very values that our enemies want to undermine. Nearly two-thirds of the global coalition to counter ISIL (or Daesh) is European. These transatlantic contributions to the larger collective good are invaluable not simply as acts of generosity, but as acts that advance our own common security.

At the very end – toward the end of the trip that I took to Europe a couple of weeks ago, I was in Kyiv and visited the Maidan. And it was a good moment to reflect on the people who are actually behind and affected by the policies all of us have the responsibility to debate and determine: students, business owners, grandmothers who braved sniper bullets and truncheons to demand that their government at the time uphold its promise of a European future. It’s a call that we all recognize in this room, a call for government to honor the aspirations of its citizens in word and in deed. And it’s a story that sometimes gets lost in these policy debates, because this really does come back to people and basic principles, and I think it’s a story that needs to be told and retold – a story that goes to the heart of the transatlantic partnership that so many countries in this room fought to build. It goes to why we built it in the first place and why we need to stand together to defend it today and in all the days that follow.

So I don’t think anyone needs to be told the importance of this moment, because everyone in this room in particular recognizes it. From Ukraine’s eastern borders to Europe’s Mediterranean periphery, the threats we face are already at NATO’s doorstep. They demand unity of effort, they demand accountability for our pledges, and maybe most of all they demand an uncompromising commitment to the values that united us in the first place. In this mission, I can think of no community of leaders better equipped to navigate the way forward than the men and women in this room and the countries that you represent. We look to your expertise, to your experience, to your creativity in meeting the urgency of this moment. Thank you very much. (Applause.)