National Security

Tillerson’s Europe Trip Shows Diplomacy in Action

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Europe trip offered a rare public opportunity to observe diplomatic negotiations.  His joint press conference with High Representative Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign minister, showed agreement with Europe on some issue, but exposed sharp rifts on others.  They spoke with reporters in Brussels about the content and nature of the discussions they had just held.

The difference in the topics and tone of each diplomat is a good indicator of what each side thinks is important.  The Secretary’s remarks focused heavily on Iran, emphasizing the importance of ensuring Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal.  He noted Iran’s destabilizing influence throughout the Middle East, from Iran’s role in stoking civil war in Yemen and Syria, to its supporting Hezbollah’s destruction of Lebanese civil society.

The Iran Deal, From Both Sides

In his statement, the Secretary said, “We … discussed, as the high representative mentioned, our joint efforts under the JCPOA [the Iran deal] to hold Iran fully compliant with the terms of the JCPOA, fully enforce that agreement, but at the same time recognizing that Iran is carrying out a number of other destabilizing actions in the region….

“These issues and activities of Iran cannot be ignored and cannot go unanswered, and we intend to continue to take action to ensure Iran understands this is not acceptable to us, and we look forward to working with European partners in that regard as well. It’s a threat, I think, to many of our shared values.”

“These issues and activities of Iran cannot be ignored and cannot go unanswered.”

For her part, Mogherini pushed back on the nuclear deal.  She said that the EU believes that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear deal, and that it is working.  To change it now, Mogherini said, would cause instability in the region and within Europe.

“I have reaffirmed the European Union view that continued implementation of the Iran nuclear deal is a key strategic priority for European security but also for regional and global security….  The European Union is willing to work closely with the United States on these issues on the basis of continued U.S. implementation of the nuclear deal….  [D]ismantling an agreement on nuclear issues that is working, as the IAEA has certified for nine times, would not put us in a better position to discuss all the rest on the country.”

For Europe: Jerusalem and NATO Expansion

It was an interesting window on the public practice of diplomacy.  From Mogherini’s perspective, the talks included four main topics: the Middle East peace process, Iran, Syria, and the Western Balkans.  Her reference to the peace process included her expression of hope that “A way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of both states so that the aspiration of both parties can be fulfilled.”  This was coded language for “don’t call Jerusalem the capital of Israel, because it will blow up the peace process.”

Mogherini’s specific mention of the Western Balkans referred to the Balkan countries that are not yet members of the EU or NATO.  They include Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania.  She said both the U.S. and the EU recognize that the countries have a “clear European perspective,” and spoke of continued reforms and negotiations with their governments.

For America: North Korea, ISIS, and NATO Spending

Tillerson, on the other hand, did not mention either the Western Balkans or Jerusalem in his remarks.  He did, however, bring up the continued commitment of the United States and Europe to rein in the North Korean nuclear weapons program.  “We appreciate the resolute stance of our European allies to send a message to the regime in North Korea that we do not accept the nuclear weapons program that they have undertaken….”

All NATO members have committed themselves to spend at least two per cent of GDP on defense.  Only a handful have met their commitments.

The Secretary brought up the shared commitment to defeating ISIS globally, not just in Iraq and Syria.  He also took the opportunity to remind Europeans of their NATO commitment to increase defense spending.  “We know our security is strongest when allies and partners shoulder their fair share of the burden, and that’s why we continue to call on others to increase their defense spending that is towards a shared objective and serves everyone well.”  All NATO members have committed themselves every two years since 2004, at the biennial summits, to spend at least two per cent of GDP on defense.  Only a handful have met their commitments.

A joint press conference like this is a good illustration of how diplomacy is conducted.  Each side lays out its positions, listens to the positions of the other side, and plays to its strengths during the discussions.  Views are stated clearly but with respect. When it’s over, the diplomats return home and confer with policymakers to adjust national policy according to the intersection of allied priorities and national interest.

Bart Marcois

Bart Marcois (@bmarcois) is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and was the principal deputy assistant secretary of energy for international affairs during the Bush administration. Additionally, Marcois served as a career foreign service officer with the State Department. He is a director at the Richard Richards Foundation.

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