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Europe and Eurasia: Press Availability in Brussels

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, good afternoon, everybody. I am pleased to be back in Brussels – obviously, a little bit bittersweet – to be here with my NATO colleagues for the last ministerial as Secretary of State, but I’m happy to be with my colleagues and pleased to be back in Brussels.

There’s nothing nostalgic about our need to constantly reaffirm the importance of collective defense and democratic solidarity. I think we’ve learned from experience – long experience going back to the last century that peace is best kept through strength and unity, through clarity of purpose and intent, and those qualities, I think, remain at the heart of the NATO mission.

These principles are not new to the current generation of NATO leaders; they’ve been at the core of this alliance since its inception. The reason is very simple: because the founders of NATO witnessed the horror that results when instability and political extremism grow unchecked. They knew that hate and territorial ambition and radicalism, particularly when mixed with economic challenges as well as nationalism can often lead to a noxious mix that poisons entire nations, entire continents, and can quickly spread beyond our ability to control them.

Those leaders understood the absolute necessity of defending and strengthening the liberal world order. And they recognized that it’s never enough just to speak out about values of tolerance, openness, democracy, rule of law, good governance – we have to preserve and protect those cherished hopes, aspirations, and we have to do so every day in word and in deed.

The same is very true of our time right now. The members of this alliance bear a huge responsibility to push back against waves of authoritarianism, extreme nationalism, and gross violations of national sovereignty and against threats to security and fundamental human rights. And we need to do so from a position of strength. Now, we can only succeed in this endeavor through unity, through our willingness and our ability to back up our promises of collective defense – and to back up those promises, in some cases, with action.

At the Wales Summit in 2014 and the Warsaw Summit last July, NATO allies made fundamental changes in the way that we defend our people, our values, and we strengthened our defenses in the East, increasing our contributions in the fight against terrorism, and inviting Montenegro to join NATO. At this ministerial, we are taking further steps to implement those decisions and to advance NATO’s partnerships and missions.

And we are upholding our best traditions of partnership by deepening our cooperation with the European Union, agreeing to set of concrete steps to enhance NATO-EU coordination on a range of issues, from hybrid warfare to cyber security and more.

Today, we also reviewed our efforts to add muscle to our deterrent presence in Central Europe and the Baltics, and to build the security capacity of these allies.

We discussed the work that NATO forces are doing to support the counter-Daesh coalition, to back operations in the Mediterranean to counter human trafficking and irregular migration, and to provide training and assistance to Libya’s Government of National Accord.

Tomorrow, in the NATO-Ukraine Commission, we will support and affirm our steadfast support for the sovereignty and integrity of a democratic Ukraine. And we will restate, as we have consistently, that we do not support or recognize Russia’s purported annexation of Crimea or accept its continued aggression in the eastern part of the country. And I would call on Russia once again to work with all of us to fully implement the Minsk agreement.

Now, tomorrow, alliance members will also meet with Afghan Foreign Minister Rabbani in order to discuss the progress of the Resolute Support Mission and the need for increased investment and long-term backing for Afghan security forces in what remains a very tense and unsettled environment.

Clearly, from all I’ve just said, our agenda is a full one. And it’s no secret that there are powerful forces of discontent swirling around the globe today to which the transatlantic community is also far from immune. These forces test our resilience, they test our purpose, they test our unity, they test our steadfastness of commitment, and the sustainability of our democratic ideals.

But I make the point today and I made the point to my colleagues that the change of an administration in the United States will not change the unwavering commitment of the United States to these ideals or to our NATO obligations.

Let me share with you what I told my colleagues more specifically: The United States commitment to NATO and to Article 5 transcends politics. This alliance has enjoyed political support beyond political parties and beyond one branch of government or another, and across our vast land, the United States, I can tell you we remain committed to those principles. I think that – I can’t overstate the degree to which I am confident that the majority of both parties in the United States – both major parties – are committed to NATO itself and to those principles because NATO and those principles delivered an end to the Balkan Wars, delivered solidarity after September 11th, and delivered burden sharing in Afghanistan and against terrorism.

The allies around NATO’s table are America’s closest friends and most capable partners. And together, we built the world post-World War II, liberal order, the order that has withstood the test of time. And I believe today we have to stay united in its defense.

Now as long as there are grave dangers in the world, NATO is going to serve an indispensable purpose. But an even deeper source of NATO’s strength is its commitment to freedom, to human rights, to rule of law, to a structure. The countries sitting here are not sitting around this table plotting to disturb the sovereignty of any nation. This is a defensive alliance, and it is here to defend the order of freedom and the order of liberty and the rule of law.

NATO defends freedom every day in a real world where it is threatened and in many cases threatened by people who have no other agenda to offer anybody. They’re not talking about a better rule of law; they’re not talking about a better order; they don’t talk about how to educate whole populations or build a healthcare system or deliver transportation. No, the people, the non-state actors that we’re fighting with today in the world just want to say no, and they want to kill anybody who isn’t willing to say no with them. And that’s why they’ve killed Yezidis because they’re Yezidis; they’ve killed Christians because they’re Christians; they kill Shia because they are Shia. And that is against everything that we have fought for and stood for since the inception of NATO itself.

So I am confident about what we are working on here, and I am absolutely confident that the next administration and the Congress will stand together in support of the values and principles that are represented in this significant endeavor.

Tomorrow, I believe, if I’m up to speed on where we are in the calendar – and I am moving fast enough that I’m not every day – but I think it’s December 7th, which is the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. So our nation fought together with our allies and friends in Europe to come out of that great war with a better sense of direction and with a commitment to a set of values and to a set of principles that I’m proud to have represented and continue to represent not just in my capacity as Secretary of State but as a citizen of the United States.

With that, I am happy to take any questions, however we’re doing that.

MR KIRBY: The first question today comes from Karen DeYoung, Washington Post.

QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, with the new government offenses in Aleppo, the city appears on the verge of falling within days, if not within hours. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said today that the United States had revoked a plan discussed with you in Rome last week to evacuate civilians and opposition fighters from the city. He said anyone who remained there would be eliminated. The rebels say they’re discussing the evacuation – their evacuation with the United States, although they’ve not yet agreed to us – to it. Can you tell us the status of the talks with both Russia and the opposition and what the prospects are that anything can be agreed before Aleppo falls?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Karen, let me – I’m going to take a moment in answering this question, because it’s important to have a context and to put this in that sort of context.

As the Arab Spring broke out and moved through a number of countries, Syria proved not to be immune to the expression of hope of young people in its country. And so after Tahrir Square in Egypt and after Tunisia, demonstrations took place in Damascus by young people who wanted jobs and wanted a future. And those young people were met by regime thugs who beat them up and injured many of them. And their parents didn’t like what had happened to those kids. So the parents went out and demonstrated on behalf of their kids and protested the way they’d been treated. And those parents and the other demonstrators were met with bullets and guns. And that is how Syria began, folks. That is – this is about the rights of people in a country who sought a better life and wanted to demonstrate and were met with brutality. And that brutality led to an increasing insurgency – excuse me – representing an opposition to the Assad regime.

Now, out of that battle grew radicalized entities. And some of those radicalized entities received support from various places in various parts of the world, particularly in that region. And they got weapons and they fought on. A number of countries – Iran and Russia particularly – supported Assad in his fight against that, as did Hizballah, which we have labeled a terrorist organization and which is a terrorist organization.

So that fight has been going on now for five years plus. When we assembled in Vienna a couple of years ago to begin the process of trying to create a political direction for trying to resolve the war, we brought everybody to the table, including Russia and Iran. And we sought a ceasefire. And let me make it clear that at that point in time Russia and Iran both supported a ceasefire when we were in Vienna. But the opposition would not buy into a ceasefire; they didn’t want to have a ceasefire. And there was a refusal to embrace the ceasefire, despite many of us saying that’s the best way to get to the table and have a negotiation in order to resolve this politically. But people chose to fight. And from that day until today, there’s been a loss of territory and a loss of life way beyond what any of us wanted to see unfold.

So we’re not the fighters on the ground – they are. They have to make their choices. And the fact is that, most recently in discussions, there has been discussion of trying to move people out in order to save Aleppo. But until this moment, there has not been an agreement on how that would happen or how those people would move out or how they might be protected. So we have been meeting. We are trying to find a way to get to the table, so we can have that negotiation that many of us wanted to have begin two years ago or before that, but which the participants were unwilling – and that’s both sides, by the way. Assad has never stopped fighting, never stopped prosecuting the war, and never shown the willingness to actually engage in that kind of a discussion that could bring the war to a close.

So you’ve got to have the parties prepared to be able to come to the table. Now Russia says that Assad is prepared to come to the table. They say that’s part of their agreement that they would support him, that he has to engage in good faith in a negotiating process. And I am, personally, deeply in favor of putting that to the test, of trying to get to Geneva in order to be able to negotiate the political outcome that is essential. Why? Because even if Aleppo falls – and it might or it might not; I can’t tell you – but it’s undergoing an unbelievable bombardment, barrage of indiscriminate killing that is putting enormous pressure on everybody there. But I don’t know what will happen.

I do know this: Even if it did fall, Aleppo will not change the fundamental underlying complexity of this war. If Assad takes over Aleppo, is the war going to end? No. Will he have solved the political challenge of bringing people together to unite the country? No. Will many of the people who have been embittered as a consequence of what has gone on in Aleppo continue to fight and blow themselves up or put a car bomb in place or a suicide vest with a – yes, the war will continue. The violence will continue.

And so if you’re going to rebuild Syria, is Syria going to be rebuilt by Assad alone somehow, after Aleppo were to fall, if it fell? The answer is no. It’s going to take hundreds of billions of dollars, with the global community being willing to come together. And the global community will not be willing to come together to do anything about Aleppo unless there is a political settlement. So my hope is that this week in our continued conversation with the Russians we can get them to understand the imperative of getting to that table, having the negotiation, and of not inflaming passions more with the total destruction of Aleppo.

So that’s where we are. We’ll see what happens. There may or may not be a meeting towards the latter part of the week. I will see Foreign Minister Lavrov in Hamburg at the OSCE. We are scheduled to meet, and we can have a conversation about whether or not we can actually find a better way forward at this moment in time.

MR KIRBY: Next question comes from Daniel Brossler, Suddeutsche Zeitung.

QUESTION: Daniel Brossler, Suddeutsche Zeitung. Mr. Secretary, defense expenditure of NATO allies was an issue during the U.S. election campaign. Are you – here I am. Are you satisfied with --

SECRETARY KERRY: Say that again. The what?

QUESTION: Defense expenditure of NATO – European NATO allies was an issue during the U.S. election campaign. Are you satisfied with what European allies have been doing so far to increase their defense expenditure, and are you confident that this question will not be linked in the future to the U.S. commitment to Article 5?

SECRETARY KERRY: I am happy that a number of countries are plussing up their defense expenditures, and I raised the issue of defense expenditures again today, as I have, I think, at almost every NATO meeting. And right now there are five countries in NATO that are at the goal, the established goal of 2 percent for every member country: the United States, the UK, Greece, Poland, and Estonia. But since Wales, 24 allies have stopped the long trend of decline, so we’re pleased that there has been an arresting of the wrong direction movement and they are beginning to increase spending to move in the right direction.

So yes, I am pleased with that, but I want to emphasize that just increasing and increasing by small percentages will not do the job for NATO in the long run. We need to meet the goals of 2 percent, and every country needs to meet its obligations. I am confident that Article 5 is not going to be held hostage to the lack of one country or another or several having met that goal. That’s not going to happen. Article 5 is larger than – it’s about principle, it’s about security. But I do think that’s why it is so important for countries to, as I said earlier, put their actions where the words are with respect to the NATO alliance.

MR KIRBY: Next question --

SECRETARY KERRY: And I think we would agree with the incoming administration on the need to do that.

MR KIRBY: Next question, Nicolas Revise, AFP. Right here, sir.

SECRETARY KERRY: Nicolas, I like the beard. Are you traveling somewhere I don’t know?

QUESTION: Thank you, sir. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. You just said that you are confident that the change of administration will not change the commitment of the United States to NATO. Yesterday you said in Berlin that we are going to be okay, but I’d like to ask you how worried you are and what you could do to make sure that the incoming Trump administration does not dismantle or reverse what you called yourself a major achievement, including transatlantic trade and security ties, the Iran deal, the climate change agreement, or the opening policy toward Cuba. Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, obviously, I don’t think anybody is in a position to give an absolute, 100 percent guarantee, because not all of the people have been chosen who are going to implement the policy or affect the policy and influence it, and because those decisions are going to be made over a period of time around a table with a lot of debate and discussion. But I am confident in the people I see thus far with respect to – I mean, somebody like General Mattis is a first-rate soldier, a great, qualified general. He understands. He’s been here, he knows this place, he understands these things. And I am quite confident that they will remain committed to the fundamental, core components of the transatlantic alliance and America’s partnership with NATO and with the EU. I have no doubt about that.

Now, whether there’s a twist about pressure on funding or how they begin to engage, that’s going to be their choice and I’m not going to second-guess it now in a blank. I mean, the list for people to replace me is growing, not diminishing. So I can’t begin to guess and I’m not going to try to guess. So let’s see where we are, but I believe in the end common sense will prevail.

Now, we’ve already seen indications of that. We’ve seen that there’s already a revision with respect to immigration, there’s already a revision with respect to the amount of wall or fence or whatever it is now being called. There’s going to be – there’s also a revision with respect to – I think the other day the president-elect expressed an openness on the subject of climate change, and just yesterday his daughter met with Al Gore and is gathering information about it. I believe as information is gathered, that thoughtful, fact-based decisions have the ability to be made, and I’m going to believe in that – hopefully that’s what’s happened until I see otherwise.

In addition to that, I understand President Obama had a good conversation with the president-elect on the subject of the Iran nuclear agreement and that there was a sense in that conversation, without violating any of it, that there were aspects of it that are constructive and positive and worthwhile and maybe should be held onto. And so I just think it’s a waste of time – I mean, it’s human and I understand the anxiety, but let’s not get all churned up over things that haven’t happened and appointments that haven’t been made. My hope is that facts and science and common sense and our mutual interests are going to be well thought through and measured in ways that will produce good decisions for the interests not just of our country, but of our alliance, of our partnerships, of our friendships, of our allies, and I’m going to continue to believe that that will happen. But I think that there is every indication that there’s an openness, at least at this point in time.

There will be some things that the current Administration doesn’t like. There will be some things that many of us will not agree with, that run counter, because this is a different administration; it ran on a different approach. So when those things occur, we will have to engage in the political dialogue that’s at the heart of our democracy. And I certainly, as a private citizen, will not shy away from doing that on those things that I think matter enormously.

Now let me just say a quick word about that. The Iran nuclear agreement has made the world safer. Nobody argues today that Iran has the ability to build a bomb today or in the next few years and that, if things play out correctly, it will be a long time before that ability might or might not exist, depending on what choices are made in the long haul. But at 3.67 percent limitation on enrichment with a 300 kilogram limited stockpile of enriched uranium, it’s physically impossible to build a bomb. And we know those amounts are there on a day-to-day basis because of the inspection regime, which has been put in place.

So I think when people look at these facts and see the reality that if you suddenly got rid of that, you’re going to go back to a country that’s racing towards a bomb or not adhering to the agreement, you suddenly have a more dangerous mix and set of choices. And what I know we avoided when we came together and passed that agreement was we avoided an immediate conflict in the absence of an agreement. So I’m convinced the world is safer and I think the Trump administration will come to that conclusion. And there are many security people in Israel and elsewhere in the region who have come to that conclusion.

In addition on climate change, all the evidence is indicating on a daily basis an increased threat from the level of climate change that’s taking place now. And it’s not political; it’s not something somebody pulls out of thin air and fakes. It’s scientific evidence out of thousands of peer-reviewed studies. I was just in Antarctica. I was handled a vial of South Pole air that is reputedly the cleanest air on the planet. And there’s a little graph on that vial that shows the carbon dioxide rising in Antarctica. And when I looked at the number of parts per million on that particular vial of carbon dioxide in the air in Antarctica, the cleanest air on Earth, it was 401.6 parts per million, which is more than 50 points above the 350 parts per million that scientists tell us is the tipping point. The tipping point – inability to recover. That’s Antarctica.

Just this past week or two – a few weeks ago – we heard that the Arctic was measured at a temperature that was 36 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the average on that particular set of days at any time recorded – 36 degrees. We are seeing sea level rise occur where Miami Beach is now raising some of its roads, pumping water out at high tide on a sunny day; where Boston sees high tides come over the seawall of the park; where other places are seeing floods that were supposed to happen only once every 500 years are happening in sequence; fires that are happening with greater frequency, greater intensity. The last year was the warmest year in human history recorded. It’s part of 10 years of the warmest decade in human history recorded, which precedes the second warmest decade in human history, which precedes the third warmest decade in human history. That’s the trend. Just like this, folks.

So you can’t look at these things and recognize that we’re already spending billions of dollars in mitigation for things that are happening now, whereas there is a clear alternative, which is to embrace the biggest market the world has ever seen – the energy market – move towards sustainable clean, greener energy and create jobs in the doing so. So I think the clarity of this choice is something which is scientifically and ultimately morally unavoidable. And that’s why I believe that the Trump administration, when they weight these things properly, if they do, will come to the right conclusion.

MR KIRBY: Thanks, everybody. That’s all the time we have for tonight. Appreciate it.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all very much.