Press Briefing by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes on the President's Upcoming Trip to Poland, Belgium and France
3:02 P.M. EDT
MS. HAYDEN: Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining on what we know has been a fairly busy Friday for you. Today we’re going to do a preview of the President’s trip to Europe next week. Our speaker is Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, Ben Rhodes. He’ll be speaking to you on the record, and there’s no embargo on this call.
So with that, I will hand it over to Ben.
MR. RHODES: Thanks, everybody, for joining the call on what I know has been a busy day. I’ll just say at the outset that, echoing I think what you heard the President say, we are very sad that Jay Carney will be leaving us. He’s been a tremendous friend and colleague to all of us who work here in the White House the last five years. I know he has very green pastures to return to, but we’re sorry that he is leaving us and won’t be on this upcoming trip. But we’ve enjoyed so much working with him, learning from him, and getting his perspective not just as a Press Secretary but as a former journalist and foreign correspondent himself.
With that, let me just go through some of the objectives for the President’s upcoming trip, and then his schedule. First of all, I think this trip to Europe comes at a very important time in the Transatlantic relationship as we seek to reaffirm our commitments to our European allies, deepen our cooperation with our European allies, and pursue an agenda that can shore up both the security and economic foundations of the Transatlantic partnership.
I think in terms of the issues that will be in play throughout the President’s trip, we generally will have a focus on our support for the people and government of Ukraine; our efforts to strengthen and modernize NATO; our work to diversify European energy security; and our negotiations around the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. So there’s a broad agenda for the President throughout the trip.
To go through his schedule, we will arrive in Warsaw on Tuesday morning. He will meet President Komorowski at the airport, and then President Obama and President Komorowski will have the opportunity to meet with some of the American and Polish airmen who are supporting our aviation mission that is based at Lask Air Force Base in Poland. This was an additional step the United States took in providing F-16s and an aviation detachment to Poland as part of our effort to reassure our European and particularly Eastern European allies in the aftermath of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. So the two leaders will have a chance to thank some of the personnel involved in that effort.
Following that event the President will have a bilateral meeting at the Belweder Place with President Komorowski. The U.S.-Polish alliance is critical to the Transatlantic relationship generally and is a foundation of America’s support for not just the Polish people but Eastern European allies generally. And the leaders will have an opportunity to discuss the situation in Ukraine, NATO, and energy, and the broader U.S.-Polish relationship.
Later in the afternoon, the President will have a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Tusk, where he’ll continue that discussion rooted in the bilateral relationship. Then the United States and Poland will host a meeting of our broader Eastern and Central European allies. The President has done this on a couple of occasions earlier in his presidency. And given the focus on reassuring and consulting with our Central and Eastern European allies, we determined with the Poles that it would be good to host this meeting in Warsaw. This will include the United States and Poland, as well as Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and of course, the United States and Poland are co-hosting that meeting. So they will also review the agenda that I spoke of earlier.
That evening the President will attend a Solidarity Dinner at the royal palace. Of course, we are visiting Poland on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Solidarity -- well, the first partially free election in Poland’s history that grew out of the courage and heroism of the Solidarity movement. So the President will have an opportunity to meet with the leaders and other attendees at that Solidarity Dinner where I know the Polish government is paying tribute to people who have played a critical role in advancing democracy and human rights.
On Wednesday morning the President will hold a bilateral meeting with President-elect Poroshenko of Ukraine. This is an important time for President Obama to affirm directly to President-elect Poroshenko our commitment to the people of Ukraine. We have a broad agenda to work with them; to stabilize the economy; to provide significant assistance as they seek to reestablish stability and growth within Ukraine; and also, of course, to support their efforts to reduce tensions to pursue dialogue and unity within Ukraine; and also to work with the European allies, with Russia, and above all with the government of Ukraine to facilitate dialogue to reduce the tensions within Ukraine.
Again, we very much admired that the people of Ukraine have turned out in huge numbers to elect President-elect Poroshenko. We’ve admired his commitment to pursue dialogue and to aim to reduce tensions and put Ukraine on a positive path. And in these days before his inauguration, this will be an important time for the President to check in directly and review his agenda.
Following that bilateral meeting, the President will go to the Royal Castle, where he will meet with other leaders attending the Freedom Day event. At the Royal Castle, the President will be one of the speakers who will give the speech commemorating the Day of Freedom. In his speech, I think he’ll have an opportunity to speak about the history of the democratic movement within Poland, its resonance beyond Poland’s borders, and its connections to many of the movements for democracy and human rights in Eastern Europe and around the world.
He’ll also have a chance to reaffirm America’s unwavering commitment to secure democracy and to the security of our Eastern European allies, recognizing that Poland, as much as any nation, understands that democracy is something that needs to be constantly defended and constantly advanced. And so it will be a resonant opportunity for him to speak to the people of Poland about our commitment to their security and their democracy.
After that event, the President will fly to Brussels. He will travel to the Royal Palace and have a meeting with King Philippe. Then he will attend the G7 summit. And, as you know, we made the decision to host the Summit in Brussels after suspending Russian participation and moving the summit, of course, from Sochi to Brussels.
That night, the leaders will have a dinner -- a working dinner together. The focus will be on foreign policy issues, and certainly Ukraine will be a focus of the discussion that night.
On Thursday, the President will attend G7 meetings on the global economy, and energy and climate issues. The energy piece will build on the energy ministerial that took place that did discuss how to move forward on energy diversification and cooperation among G7 countries and the United States and Europe broadly.
Following that, there will be a working lunch on development issues. In the afternoon, after the G7 Summit is concluded, the President will have a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Cameron of the United Kingdom. Then the President will travel to Paris. That night in Paris, he will have a private dinner with President Hollande before spending the night in Paris.
On Friday, the President will travel to Normandy. This, of course, is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, an opportunity for the President to pay tribute to our veterans who served in D-Day and then World War II more broadly. And he’ll speak to their extraordinary service. He’ll also connect, of course, their extraordinary service to what we’ve seen from the 9/11 generation, who have similarly stood up to serve in a time of war, and done so with great bravery and patriotism.
The President will deliver remarks at Omaha Beach for a French-American commemoration, D-Day ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery Memorial. And then in the afternoon, the President will travel to Sword Beach, where he will attend a lunch hosted by President Hollande with the other leaders that the French have invited for the 70th anniversary commemorations. And then he will attend the international ceremony that the French are hosting with all the leaders of the various belligerent countries in World War II.
After that, the President will depart France and come home to Washington, D.C. on Friday night. With that, happy to take your questions.
Q Hi, thanks, everyone. Can you hear me okay? I’m on a headset.
MR. RHODES: Yes, we got you.
Q Okay, perfect. Thanks for taking the call. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about President Obama’s plan to interact with Russian President Putin. Will they shake hands? Do you expect them to have any stand-alone, private meeting or bilat? Can you rule that out? And how do you see, now that the May 25th elections went ahead and President Putin has accepted those, do you see tensions easing? And will that be reflected in these visits?
MR. RHODES: First of all, we don’t have any plans for a bilateral meeting with President Putin, so we’re not anticipating the two leaders have any type of formal meeting. Clearly, they will be in the same place, attending the leaders lunch and then the ceremony, so they will certainly have cause to interact in that context. But again, no formal meetings scheduled.
With respect to your second question, I think there’s an opportunity with the election. We’ve always said that any questions about the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government should be settled by the will of the Ukrainian people. And that election clearly went off well in the sense that the Ukrainian people came out in large numbers to vote. The OSCE monitoring mission made clear their support for the free and fair election that took place. And even in some of the destabilized regions in the east and south you saw an effort by people to have their voices heard.
We now have a clear mandate for the President-elect, President-elect Poroshenko. And this should be taken as an opportunity for all sides, both within Ukraine and in the surrounding neighborhoods, to work together to reduce tension.
So Russia has an opportunity here to take the opportunity of this incoming government to reduce the tensions that have caused such destabilization and human suffering inside of Ukraine. However, we have not yet seen Russia take the steps that are necessary to reduce those tensions. Yes, there has been some movement of Russian forces away from the border. There have been some indications from the Russian leadership of a willingness to engage in dialogue. That is welcome.
At the same time, however, we see these separatists in the east and the south who we believe enjoy the support of the Russian government continuing their efforts to commit acts of violence and to destabilize Ukraine. So we believe Russia needs to use its influence on those separatists to calm tensions, to put an end to this violence, and to engage in a dialogue with the newly elected government of Ukraine. And the United States and Europe have consistently said we’re ready to facilitate and participate in such a dialogue provided that the elected government of the Ukrainian people is at the table.
So that’s the opportunity that is available to Russia. Should they not take it, they will continue to face the isolation that they’ve been confronted with, the sanctions that have imposed a great cost already on their economy. So that’s the choice that continues to be before the Russians. The Ukrainian people have made their choices, and it’s clear that their new government wants to move forward in terms of unifying the country and pursuing good relations with the United States and Europe, but also, as indicated, a willingness to engage in dialogue and constructive relations with Russia.
Q Yes, thanks, Ben, for taking this call. It’s really appreciated. There were some European elections last Sunday all over Europe, and the far right was really on the rise. Is it a concern for you when the President is going to be in Europe, for instance, in France, the far right was above 24 percent. We didn’t have to -- from the White House. How do you see this new Europe?
MR. RHODES: Thank you for the question. First of all, it’s up to the European people to make their own determinations about representation in the European Parliament.
I think the President has spoken to this, including most recently in his speech in Brussels, that you do see, with all the various strains of the aftermath of the economic crisis of 2009 and the Eurozone crisis, that in certain places, there has been the emergence of a politics on the far right and the far left, and that I think in all of our countries we do want to show some degree of vigilance against any efforts to demonize, for instance, people of a different background or ethnicity. That’s not to say that all of those parties have that as part of their agenda.
But as a general matter, I think Europe and the European ideal is so inspiring in part because it is so rooted in tolerance and democratic values and cooperation between peoples and nations. That certainly is the spirit of unity that has guided our relationship with the European Union. It’s certainly the values that we share in common with France and the French people.
And we certainly believe that is the overwhelming sentiment within Europe. Again, Europe remains a continent that is committed to democratic values. So we still see that as the overwhelming sentiment expressed by European voters and European leaders. But again, all of us, whether it’s in the United States or in European countries, also need to be vigilant against any efforts to isolate individual groups because of who they are or what they look like.
In terms of our relationship with the European Union, it’s been strong. We expect it to continue to be strong. We expect to have very good cooperation on foreign policy priorities. We work very closely together on issues like Ukraine, on issues like Iran negotiations -- which will certainly be a subject at the G7 -- and on trade issues. We believe that the Transatlantic Investment Partnership, for instance, is something that is going to be profoundly in the interest of both Americans and Europeans alike, and frankly, has strategic benefits in addition to economic benefits, which has been put into sharp relief by the recent events in Ukraine.
So, again, we’ll work with the European Parliament, we’ll work with the European Union, we’ll work with political leaders across the continent. And we still be believe, of course, that the values that we have in common are what illuminate American and European politics even as we have to be vigilant against any particular extreme views that run counter to those values.
Q Ben, could you talk a little about the two anniversary speeches, the Warsaw speech and then the remarks at -- in Normandy? Is the Warsaw speech kind of the set piece speech for this trip? And what should we expect from the President?
MR. RHODES: You heard the President at West Point talk about how American leadership in the world had to be rooted in a set of alliances, nations that can work together, as well as a set of common values, a commitment to democracy and human rights. And I think on the trip you will see a concrete manifestation of what the President was talking about at West Point.
In Warsaw, we will be at the 25th anniversary of the elections that grew out of the Solidarity movement. And I think it reminds us that there’s a history that we share together that involved peoples in not just Poland but across Central and Eastern Europe standing up for their democratic values knowing that they had the support of the United States and our Western European allies. In doing so, they were able to achieve remarkable change. And frankly, the change that the Polish people have brought about sends an important message to people in Ukraine, for instance, in the sense that by consolidating their democracy, Poland has grown its economy and increased prosperity for its people in the course of the last 25 years.
So I think in his speech, the President will talk about the importance of those democratic values, the fact that these are things that people have stood up for and fought for in the past, and the fact that alliances are necessary to protect those democratic values.
The United States has an ironclad security commitment through Article 5 to the defense of Poland and to the defense of Poland’s democracy. And that alliance is not just a bunch of people meeting once a year at a NATO Summit, it’s manifested by a concrete security commitment like our aviation detachment in Poland.
So, again, I think in the context of Russia’s intervention into Ukraine’s territory, it’s a very powerful moment to both look back at the history of how Polish democracy was won, but also look at the current moment and the need for the United States and Europe to stand together on behalf of the security of Eastern Europe, and to stand in support of democratic values and all of those who would reach for democratic values, as we’ve seen so powerfully in Ukraine these last several months.
So I do think that that is a set -- a very important speech for this trip. It will set the tone for how we’re looking at the U.S.-European relationship going forward. The only thing I’d say in addition here is that, oftentimes these anniversaries, you gather together and you look back. And we will do that. But we also at this moment in particular have to look forward, recognizing that the work is not done in terms of securing a Europe that is whole, free and at peace, and recognizing that there are still people in places like Ukraine who are standing up for their freedom and democracy.
And so we have to take the energy that we draw from those anniversaries and the inspiration we draw from those anniversaries, and use that to mobilize collective action going forward.
I think in Normandy, similarly, there’s a chance to look back at the ultimate manifestation of the allies working together on behalf of freedom. There’s no more powerful act in demonstration of a commitment to human freedom that you could have than boarding those ships and storming those beaches, which the United States did side by side with the European allies as well as Canadians and other allies.
And so I think he’ll talk about the service of that generation, and I think he will aim to connect the service of that D-Day generation with the service of the 9/11 generation today, recognizing that we often pay tribute to the greatest generation -- we have a generation since 9/11 that has equated itself equally in terms of their commitment to serve in a time of war and stand up for those values, and that without that type of service, those values cannot endure. So it takes the United States, it takes our leadership, and it takes our alliances to secure the freedoms that we pay tribute to at anniversaries like this.
Q Reuters. Good job on the pronunciation. Hi, guys. My question is, Ben, about two things related to energy. Yesterday, the administration made a chance in how it approaches applications to export natural gas. Is that something the President will talk about or tout with leaders in Brussels? And to what extent will the new power plant rules that will be unveiled on Monday be part of the discussion on climate change at the G7?
MR. RHODES: Yes, thanks, Jeff. Very good questions. The answer to both is, yes, those are both the topics of discussion.
On the first one, over the last several weeks, we have already taken some steps to -- through our licensing -- increase the export of natural gas to Europe, and we see that as part of the European energy picture and European energy diversification, and we’ll have an opportunity to continue to update our allies on the latest steps that we’ve taken.
Frankly, the Ukraine crisis has brought into sharp relief Europe’s energy dependence on Russia, so we are going to work closely with our European allies on the importance of both short- and long-term efforts to diversify their energy sources, to modernize their infrastructure, and to limit Russia’s ability to use energy as a tool of political leverage. And so I’d expect those conversations to take place both in Poland at the meeting of the Central and Eastern European nations, and at the G7 where there will be a discussion of specific steps that can strengthen both individual and collective energy security.
And again, these energy security goals I think have to be consistent with our long-term climate change goals. And so at the G7 we’ll be discussing those efforts. And certainly what we’ve been doing is in a lot of our international discussions focusing on something like financing for coal-fired plants and seeking to enlist other countries in working with us to phase our financing for coal-fired plants, just as we’ve been working through the G20 and other venues to phase out certain fossil fuel subsidies and promote greater energy efficiency.
So I think that the climate discussion will build on the steps that the President is taking at home, that frankly we recognize that every nation is going to have to take steps domestically to address the danger of climate change, and that those steps collectively can then inform the discussions that are underway about an international agreement around climate change that we are pursuing next year.
And again, just to echo one thing the President said at West Point, this is a national security priority for us. It is a national security crisis when you have large refugee flows, you have extreme weather events that we have to respond to, and you have potential conflicts over basic resources. So we see the climate issue as both an environmental issue -- an economic issue, given the impacts it’s going to have on our economy -- and also increasingly a national security issue.
Q Hey, guys, it’s Olivier. Ben, if I understand you correctly the President is dining with President Hollande on June 5th, is that right?
MR. RHODES: Yes, the day before the Normandy commemoration.
Q All right that's also the day that Hollande is dining with President Putin. And so unless Mr. Putin has been disinvited that would seem to be sort of a high-profile get-together between President Obama and President Putin. I’m wondering what your expectations are for that?
MR. RHODES: No, they are not dining together the three of them. We have -- this is a dinner, a bilateral dinner between President Obama and President Hollande. So President Hollande may be dining more than once or having multiple meetings. I know he’s also, for instance, hosting the Queen earlier in the day. So I just think as host of many different countries, he’s having a range of separate meetings. But there will not be a trilateral dinner that evening between the three of them. It’s just a one-on-one.
Q Thank you. In this speech in Warsaw, do you expect anything beyond sort of just the rhetorical affirmation of the U.S. commitment in terms of additional aid, or additional troop presence, or military sharing arrangements?
MR. RHODES: Sure. We have been constantly reviewing what types of additional support we can provide to the security of our Eastern European allies through rotational deployments into eastern allies, through increasing numbers of service members and personnel on the ground in those countries. So that is something that we are working on a daily basis here.
I would expect the President to address our work on those issues during his time in Poland, so I don't want to get ahead of the substance of those discussions with Poland. But they will be substantive in terms of reviewing what types of concrete actions we can take to provide additional reassurance for our eastern allies, and again what the alliance can do as a whole -- not just the United States in doing so.
So there will be I think very substantive discussions on those issues. I don't want to get ahead of those. And then that, of course, will inform the President’s remarks in Warsaw as well.
Q Hi, thanks for doing the call. In his speech at West Point, the President mentioned the crisis with Russia I’d say almost only in passing, presenting it sort of where the Western reaction as a success story of close collaboration with multilateral institutions. So generally asking does that mean that President Obama does not consider events in Ukraine as sort of a dramatic development that warrants a really fundamental shift in his foreign policy?
And more specifically, you talked a little bit about any potential things he could say about reinforcing NATO and the allies. Is the President going to be rallying the G7 or EU partners at this point for any additional pressure on Moscow? Thanks.
MR. RHODES: Sure. Well, on your first question, I would take some issue with how you characterize it. The President basically used two examples to highlight the importance of collective action in the world today, the situation in Ukraine and the situation of the Iranian nuclear program. So I think that that speaks to the fact that these are our two highest -- or at least two of our highest diplomatic priorities in the world right now. There are few things that we’ve spent more time working on the last several weeks than Ukraine, and that will continue to be the case.
We believe that the situation continues to be a crisis. There are people dying on a regular basis in eastern and southern Ukraine given the violence perpetrated and initiated by separatist factions there. So by no means are we out of the woods on Ukraine.
What I would say is that there’s an opportunity for the Ukrainian people to stabilize the situation, but that opportunity can only exist, as the President said, with the continued efforts of international institutions and alliances. So as he pointed out in his speech, the only check on Russian behavior in Ukraine is the will of the international community to move together -- the United States and Europe to both impose sanctions, but also to signal the prospect of sectorial sanctions should Russia continue to escalate its actions; the work of the OSCE in having eyes on the ground in eastern and southern Ukraine in monitoring the situation at grave personal risk to some of those monitors; the willingness of the IMF to kick in a substantial economic stabilization program and the will of NATO to reassure allies in the east like the Baltic countries and Romania and Poland.
But that's by no means an effort that has reached an end. In fact, I think in the course of the trip, the President will be focused both on the near term -- what can we do to immediately assist the incoming Ukrainian administration to stabilize the situation and seek to reduce tensions in the country; what can we immediately do in the near future to continue to reassure NATO allies; and again, what can be done in the medium and longer term strategically between the United States and Europe that this should accelerate how we look at strategic issues like the future of NATO and the willingness of European countries, as well as the United States to make the necessary investments in defense and to the Article 5 commitment that is at the foundation of NATO.
Energy security -- as I said, these discussions take place in the context of aiming to reduce Russia’s ability to use energy as leverage on European countries.
We want to see diversification of energy resources in Europe for precisely that fact. So I think across the board. And actually, the last thing I’d say is as I mentioned, there is a strategic imperative to moving forward with TTIP, as well as an economic benefit. As evidenced by what’s taking place in Ukraine, that the more we are working to move the transatlantic alliance to the next level, the stronger the position the United States and Europe will be, and strategically vis-à-vis the rest of the world, particularly those like Russia who might aim to destabilize Europe along its borders. So this is very much an ongoing area of focus for us.
And then, again, on NATO reassurance, we certainly expect that to be a focal point of the discussions certainly in Poland and with some of the European allies, the NATO member states at the G7.
On sanctions, I’ll just add, because you alluded to that as well -- look, we’ve kept our sanctions in place on Russia, and, again, should there be a continued escalation, that threat that the G7 issued the last time the leaders were together, that remains on the table -- that if there’s continued escalatory action by Russia, they have to know that the consequences are going to be that much severe for their economy.
We’ve got time for a couple of more questions.
Q My question kind of follows on from all your other questions. Basically, you’re saying that you’re trying to reaffirm your commitment to the European allies. Is it fair to say that the pivot to Asia, which was announced two years ago, that really your -- the U.S. is pivoting back to Europe in terms of bolstering its military presence in Europe, and because, in part, Russia -- what it perceives Russia to have been doing -- do you think that’s a fair characterization of where the U.S. is going now?
MR. RHODES: No, I’d dispute that in the sense that we’ve been getting this question now for a couple of years. And the main point we’d make is that what we are pivoting out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that those are the endeavors that consumed American military resources, financial resources, the attention of policymakers and diplomats. And that insofar as we are executing our rebalancing strategies of Asia Pacific, we view that very much as a project that flows out of -- emerging from the decade at war. It’s not that we were spending too much time on Europe and now wanted to spend time on Asia Pacific. It’s that we were overwhelmingly focused on these two wars, and now want to focus on a broader set of priorities, particularly in the Asia Pacific region where we do have a prioritization of our defense spending and our diplomatic resources.
I think what has changed though, to be fair and responsive to your question, is the situation in Ukraine -- that that is what has given new energy and impetus to the Transatlantic alliance. We were working very closely with Europe on a whole host of issues. Throughout 2012, for instance, the President probably spent -- in 2011 and 2012, the President probably spent more time talking to European leaders than anybody else in the world about the Eurozone crisis. And that cooperation and consultation was important as European leaders stabilized the situation.
I think in the aftermath of Russia’s intervention in Crimea and Ukraine, however, that is what has injected new urgency into discussions about NATO reassurance, about energy diversification and about our trade and investment relationship, and our commitment to democratic values.
We’ve got time for one more question.
Q My question is specifically on the Crimean Tatars. As you know, Russians are not letting leader of Crimean Tatars enter Crimea. But the situation on the ground is a fact. Is the President going to do anything about what’s happened in Crimea? Is he going to hold any talks with President Putin or the Russians? Thank you.
MR. RHODES: Yes, we are very concerned about this situation for the Crimean Tatars. And first of all, as we reiterated in our statement from the President after the Ukrainian election, we continue to reject Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Within that context, we very much are concerned about the rights of the Crimean Tatars and have been gravely concerned about reports that they are not having their basic human rights respected -- the restrictions that have been placed on some of their leaders, for instance.
I do anticipate, for instance, that there will be -- I believe the Poles are inviting some leaders who have -- from the Crimean Tatar community to some of the events so they will be a part of the events that the President is participating in. And I think our point is that the human rights that the United States and Europe stand for will have to extend across all of European borders and across all of different ethnic and faith communities in Europe. So the rights of the Crimean Tatars are just as important as the rights of any other populations in the United States -- or Poland or France, for that matter.
So I think the President will have an opportunity to speak to that principle and also to participate in events that are also holding up the work that’s been done by some of the activists from that community. I don’t, again, as I said earlier in the call, I don’t -- we have no meetings scheduled with President Putin so I couldn’t speak to whether or not they’ll discuss that set of issues. In the past, we’ve always expressed our views in support of the respect for the rights of the people of Crimea and Ukraine generally.
Well, thanks everybody for getting on the call. We look forward to continuing to update you as we leave for Europe on Monday night, arriving Tuesday morning. It should be an interesting President’s trip. And we’ll see those of you who are traveling in Poland.
END 3:51 P.M. EDT