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Diplomacy in Action

Issues on the U.S. Foreign Policy Agenda


Stephen Sestanovich, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor for the Practice of International Diplomacy at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University
New York, NY
January 27, 2014




State Dept Image/Jan 27, 2014/New York, NY
Date: 01/27/2014 Location: New York, NY Description: Stephen Sestanovich, Professor for the Practice of International Diplomacy at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, briefs at the New York Foreign Press Center on ''Issues on the U.S. Foreign Policy Agenda.'' - State Dept Image

2:00 P.M. EST

NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR

MS. GRUNDER: Good afternoon, everyone. I’m Alyson Grunder, the Director of the New York Foreign Press Center. Good to see all of you out this afternoon. We’re so pleased to have Professor Stephen Sestanovich this afternoon for our briefing mini-series on the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Professor Sestanovich is the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor for the Practice of International Diplomacy at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. And he has a new book out.

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yes, which I’m going to hold up and show you. (Laughter.) Shameless commerce.

MS. GRUNDER: So anyway, I just want to remind you all that Professor Sestanovich’s comments are his own, not those of the State Department. And you all have his bio in front of you so I will turn this program over to the professor. Thank you so much.

MR. SESTANOVICH: Thank you very much, Alyson. Well, since we’re meeting the day before the President’s State of the Union and you probably need to write stories about the – what he’s going to say and why, I thought I would focus on – oh, sorry – would focus on his likely remarks, choices that he will make, the context of what he says.

I’ve worked in both the State Department and the White House off and on over the past 30 years, and let me tell you, there’s a process underway in which everybody with a responsibility for any particular issue is desperately trying to get that issue mentioned in the State of the Union, usually unsuccessfully, but they aren’t going to know until the last minute because the text is very closely held. There will be very few people at the State Department who will have seen a copy of the text. The White House doesn’t like to share it because all White Houses want to keep control of the message and the moment, and so there will be a lot of frustrated people even in the White House staff who have spent the past month hoping that they could get two sentences on the issue that they care about the most.

Now, in anticipating the President’s handling of the foreign policy and national security agenda in the State of the Union, I would say there are four things to watch for, or at least there are four that I’m going to mention. You can write your stories any way you want, of course. Sometimes, international issues dominate in the State of the Union, but that’s rare and it surely will not be the case tomorrow night. But no president can ignore foreign policy in a speech of this kind, no matter what his real hopes for the speech are and what his real agenda is. Presidents often have difficulty controlling the way in which the press covers the speech.

You may know that when President Bush in 2002 gave his famous “axis of evil” speech, which was a State of the Union speech, he was expecting a very different kind of press coverage. He had a theme in the speech, which was America’s vision for a modernizing and democratic Middle East. And he was stunned, is what Condi Rice has in her memoirs about the speech, that none of the press coverage mentioned that; it was all about the axis of evil. So he chose a word that got all the attention and he lost control of the message.

At any rate, so the question is what to look for. And let me just say a few things about four different ways of approaching the speech. One is the strategic context; second is what I would call top-tier diplomatic initiatives; the third are messages and conflicts that could complicate American policy, or conflicts, new and old, that could complicate American policy; and the fourth is the long-term trajectory of American power.

First about strategic context: Those of you who have a chance to read my book will discover that it’s about cycles in American policy, of a very active effort and then a pulling back. And we are in a phase of retrenchment now, and a very interesting moment in retrenchment. And let me explain to you what I mean by that moment. This is the moment at which the wars that a retrenchment president is elected to end are now just about over. And what usually follows that moment is a more contentious period of policy debate, both within and without administrations. That was true in the 1950s after the Korean War was over; it was true in the 1970s after the Vietnam War was over; it was true in the 1990s after the Cold War was over. What you find in this period is a clash between presidential determination to set a steady course for the long haul, and calls by critics to deal with new problems that they take more seriously than the president.

This phase of retrenchment tends to be a time of greater congressional interference in foreign policy. You can – I mean, if history is any guide, you can be sure that the next five years will see increased congressional challenges to whoever is president. And those challenges come even from the president’s own party, and they come from the center, not just the fringes.

It’s also a time of greater allied anxiety. Counties are unsure about how far the pullback of American policy will go. Is it about regrouping to gain strength, or is it a deeper kind of disengagement? And finally, in this period of retrenchment you tend to have greater division inside administrations, more intense bureaucratic struggles. And that is a test of presidential leadership, the ability of the president to control those struggles.

So one question is: How does the President focus on these issues? How does he position himself with respect to Congress and public opinion? What does he say about issues that he and the Congress disagree about? Which issues does he give prominence to? Okay, that’s the strategic context, a moment where the President is winding down the wars that he was elected to clean up, and now has to look ahead to the kind of policy that he will conduct in the future.

I said the second thing to look for are the President’s top-tier initiatives. I don’t think there’s any real doubt about what the diplomatic priorities of the President and the Secretary of State are. I’d mentioned three: their nuclear negotiations with Iran, the Geneva II talks on Syria, and creating forward movement between Israel and the Palestinians. In a speech of this kind, there will very rarely be an adjustment of an administration’s position. New measures are unlikely to be announced. But what other messages does the President have that are related to these questions?

For example, the biggest disagreement that the President has with Congress has right now is about new sanctions against Iran. It is a significant Administration worry that the Congress will disrupt the P5+1 negotiations with Iran. Will the President say something about this? What kinds of assurances will he try to give to members of Congress to give them confidence that they should let him run the policy? What kinds of warnings will we hear about what the United States will do if talks fail? That’s part of the bargaining that always goes on between a president and Congress. Does the President say, “Don’t write what you want into law and I will do what you want eventually”? You may hear something of that in tomorrow’s speech.

More generally, given allied concerns in the Middle East, the concerns of allies that are interested in all of these issues because of – they are concerned that the United States is interested in all of these issues because it intends to be less involved in the Middle East, what kinds of assurances will there be about a continued American role in the Middle East? Across the Administration, officials have told journalists that the President wants to reduce American involvement in the Middle East. Is the President going to deny that or is he going to be silent on it? How will he address that strategic concern of countries that are allied to the United States?

So those are the top tier initiatives – how will the President handle those? The Secretary of State obviously wants him to address those in some way, to give a boost to indicate strong presidential commitment. His handlers and his allies in Congress want him to shape the message in a way that will help limit congressional interference. So what you hear tomorrow will reflect those discussions about the speech.

Third, I said there were conflicts new and old that can complicate American policy. And one thing to watch for is: What does the President say about those issues? Let me say a word about two old conflicts and two new conflicts.

The President doubtless would have liked to be able to announce in the State of the Union – and there’s been some expectation that he would announce – a plan for the follow-on force of American and NATO troops and – or military personnel in Afghanistan after the end of this year. So far there is no agreement on that that the Government of Afghanistan has agreed to. Is the President in what is supposed to be the last year of what many call the longest war in American history not going to be able to say anything about what American forces are going to be like, what the American presence is going to be in Afghanistan?

There are a lot of stories about the discussions that have gone on with President Karzai. The fact that the American commander in Afghanistan is at the White House today must increase the possibility that there will be some announcement tomorrow night, which the President, I’m sure, would like to be able to do. But President Karzai seems to be rather determined not to let him do that.

What kind of message, if there is no agreement, is he going to send through the State of the Union to President Karzai about, for example, the willingness of the United States to go to zero? So there may be a kind of public communication between the President of the United States and the president of Afghanistan in the State of the Union tomorrow night.

The President has recently been criticized for drawing down the American presence in Iraq in such a way that after 2011, that the United States was not able to affect the upsurge of civil war in the past few months in Iraq. That is going to make the handling of the Afghanistan issue more delicate for him, and there has been some discussion with Congress about what kinds of arms could be shipped to Afghanistan – I mean, sorry, to Iraq. That’s another issue where there’s a negotiation underway between the Administration and the Congress shaping foreign policy.

I mentioned that there are – those are two old conflicts that the President may want to comment on tomorrow night. There are also two new conflicts that he may want to say something about, however indirect, and those are in East Asia. And I have in mind here not just the potential for growing friction and even confrontation between China and her neighbors. That’s an issue on which American officials have been trying to send messages of support but also trying to calm the situation in East Asia.

A second conflict, which I would be surprised to hear about in the State of the Union but not totally amazed, would involve conflicts among American allies in East Asia. And here I have in mind Japan and South Korea, which have their own territorial conflict. The President has expressed – and his advisors have expressed a strong interest over many years in a greater American emphasis in East Asia. And they’re hearing from governments and publics and commentators and journalists across East Asia that the situation there is getting tenser and more dangerous. A president who addresses the Congress at this moment against the backdrop of those tensions has to decide: Does he say anything at all about that?

Finally, as I mentioned that there is a set of issues around – that will affect the long-term American power position in the world. And they may seem – and they’re all very relevant to the Administration’s relations with Congress. And if you don’t hear anything about them tomorrow night, you’re going to hear people criticizing the President – maybe lightly, maybe not at a high level, but there will be a kind of lesson drawn by members of Congress if they don’t hear anything about those issues tomorrow night. Let me tell you which ones I mean.

First of all, defense spending. The President and his advisors and particularly his military advisors at the Pentagon, the Secretary of Defense, have for the past couple of years been warning about how severe the cuts in the Pentagon budget were going to be. And with the budget deal, that prospect is now a little less acute. The budget is not going to be under quite as much pressure as it was, but the Administration and Secretary Hagel and his advisors are still reviewing the kinds of reductions that are going to be needed. Because in every retrenchment, there are big, big cuts in the defense budget. That’s what happens in this period.

The Administration’s view has been that it will be able to do – to undertake this process in a more rational way that serves the national interest and preserves a strong defense if Congress gives it more flexibility. It wants flexibility to address questions like pensions, base structure, procurement of weapon systems that it doesn’t want but that the Congress supports, and if you don’t hear anything about that from the President, members of Congress are going to be saying, “Well, we’re going to do what we want.” The President has an opportunity here to speak to members of Congress and above their heads to the American people about how this drawdown in defense is going to take place.

Last point: The President has been advocating two massive trade agreements: one, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership; and the other, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. These are ambitious undertakings, as complicated as any trade agreements that have ever been negotiated by the United States, and they face significant obstacles in the Congress. They could be some of the most important elements of an Obama legacy, if they were passed. They cannot be passed unless the President gets trade promotion authority, which is the authorization from the Congress – or the acceptance by the Congress that it will pass, it will have an up or down vote on these trade agreements without endless amendments.

Many people in Washington say if the President doesn’t get personally behind these agreements, there will be no agreements. And I’ve heard people saying the extension of a more encompassing American relationship with Asia is one of the President’s key goals; why is he not talking more about the Trans-Pacific Partnership? I’ve heard people say the strengthening of American ties to Europe is probably as important for the long-term strength of the American power position in the world as any other measure that is being considered; why is the President not talking more about that?

So if you don’t hear about those tomorrow, about those three things, I think it will produce a comment in many governments around the world of a lack of American interests in some of the most fundamental initiatives that the Administration has been pursuing.

I’m not making a prediction as to whether or not the President’s going to talk about these, only that in Washington, if the President wants to get what he has said are his key goals here – these two trade agreements and flexibility on defense spending – people are going to be watching to see how much commitment there is to those issues. Let me stop with that and we can have a discussion.

MS. GRUNDER: Could I ask you to state your name and your media affiliation when you ask a question?

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you for such an elaborate briefing. My name is Ahmed Fathi from Al Wafd News of Egypt and other Arabic language news media.

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yes.

QUESTION: Thank you for giving the attention due for the Middle East. You never --

MR. SESTANOVICH: Even if the Administration wants to get out of there. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Recently, the Iranian Government have issued statements with – prior to Geneva II conference with regard to their invitation by Ban Ki-moon, and then the day after they issued another statement that the agreement signed with the P5+1 does not include a suspension or dismantling of their nuclear program and the centrifuges. How – in your view, how do you see the Iranian position in the light of all the factors affecting the peace and security in the Middle East? We don’t see much progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. We see exploding situation. Al-Qaida is active in many parts in the Middle East, North Africa, in Yemen, in the Sinai Peninsula, in Egypt, in Libya, and we see also spillover towards CAR – Central African Republic and Mali. So in this tangled related – unrelated issues affecting the Middle East and Africa, what options does the President have in the next year?

MR. SESTANOVICH: Wow. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yeah. A small question. Look, you’ve taken an entire region and expanded it as far as one could possibly imagine – Central African Republic, Mali – and tied it together as one big set of problems. Retrenchment presidents tend not to want to do that. They want to take problems one by one and see whether they can find a way of coping with them. The President has resisted the idea that the United States has to have a strong position on every one of the issues that you’ve described. Yes, the Administration’s – the United States has a position, but does it take the lead in trying to resolve all of those problems? The answer is no.

Retrenchment presidents tend to be very interested in assigning priorities. Which are the issues that President is going to pay personal attention to? And I think – I don’t think this is an exaggeration – that the issues that the President or the Secretary of State are going to pay personal attention to, close ongoing personal attention, are the ones that I mentioned – Iran, Syria, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Issues beyond that, the United States has signaled it wants other people to handle with a greater level of responsibility than in the past. I think if you were to put your question to the President – I’m just guessing – he would say this is – we’re entering a period in which the United States can’t do everything and can’t take the lead on issues that are terribly important in the region, but that can be best resolved, perhaps, with the United States taking a less prominent role. And that was one of the reasons that the President put so much emphasis three years ago on getting European allies out front in Libya. And you’ve already seen that in other cases. The French took the lead in Mali.

The Administration has been really interested in developing African peacekeeping, so that the United States is not where people turn to address those questions. We have had periods in the past where the United States felt more responsibility to deal with almost every issue that came up internationally. That’s not true right now.

Yeah. Do you want to recognize people, Alyson? Or do you –

MS. GRUNDER: Yes. I’ll recognize --

MR. SESTANOVICH: Okay. I mean, I’ll leave it to you.

MS. GRUNDER: Journalists can ask follow-ups after everyone has had an opportunity to ask a first question.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. SESTANOVICH: Okay.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) to your question --

MR. SESTANOVICH: (Laughter.) Are you guys working together?

QUESTION: Karim Lebhour from the French public radio.

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yes.

QUESTION: It seems that there are two Irans, as far as the State Department is concerned. There is the Iran that a hand has been extended to on the nuclear issue, and there is the Iran that has been shut down by the State Department, not to go to Geneva for the Syrian negotiations. I’d like to have your take on that. Is there a good Iran on one side and a bad Iran on one side? Why are you playing two different attitudes on the same country – on the (inaudible)?

MR. SESTANOVICH: I think you’re exaggerating a little bit. On the question of Geneva, the Administration didn’t really address the question of whether Iran should be invited. But it did explain why it shouldn’t be invited.

QUESTION: But it asked Ban Ki-moon to rescind the invitation.

MR. SESTANOVICH: That’s right. But that’s for a specific reason, which was Iran indicated that it did not accept the premise of the negotiations and the agreements reached in earlier rounds. And they said okay, we weren’t – we didn’t participate in those; there’s no reason (inaudible). But the American position was there shouldn’t be any participants in these negotiations who don’t accept the ground rules. So that’s a – what does that mean? It’s not there’s a good Iran and a bad Iran; it means if we’re going to do business with Iran, it has to be on the basis of accepting constructive solutions. And that, I think, is very much the Administration’s approach toward the nuclear issue. They’re not saying there’s a good Iran and we can deal with them. They’re saying there’s an Iran that we have problems with, and we hope to be able to reach an agreement, and we have been able to do so – and we can move forward, we hope, on these negotiations because they’ve made some basic steps – taken some basic steps toward a solution that justifies going forward.

Their line – and I would think you might hear something of this from the President tomorrow – is we’re not fools, and we are actually quite suspicious of Iran. The President has said our ability to get an agreement is probably 50/50 at best. That is not a description of a good Iran. That is a description of a difficult negotiation in which you don’t know whether the other side is bargaining in good faith and wants an agreement or not.

So I would say there’s a little more consistency than you describe.

MS. GRUNDER: Sherwin.

QUESTION: Thank you. (Inaudible), Sherwin Bryce of South African Broadcasting.

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yes.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) being the fourth point, the trajectory of U.S. power --

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yes.

QUESTION: -- I wonder what your thoughts are on that trajectory, where is the United States going in terms of its global footprint, in terms of the power it exerts around the world, and what are the determining factors?

MR. SESTANOVICH: Well, the determining factors are many. One of them that the President would probably emphasize is – and this makes a lot of sense – is the strength of the American economy and the unity of American society. And that’s why he has been as interested as he has been in domestic programs to address some of the ills of the economy and some of the ills of society – I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I’m sure he would think of inequality, which he’s paid increasing attention to. So that’s a reason for a domestic focus – to try to regain strength to be able to play a large role in the world in the future.

The ones that – the issues that I emphasized are ones that are related not just to the strength of the American economy, but to the ability of the United States to exercise international leadership, as American officials like to call it. If you end up with a defense budget that is not only smaller, but is distorted by congressional decisions about pensions and about procurement, you end up with a less capable military force. If you pursue trade negotiations with the most robust economies in the world and you fail, that’s a significant setback.

So I was describing those as shaping the future of American power. And I think that ten years from now, when people look at American military capabilities or at American economic relations with other countries, how these issues are handled now will actually seem quite important.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: This is Yun Wu with People’s Daily of China.

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you for the – your description (inaudible), wish you a very happy Chinese New Year, which is (inaudible), it’s just two days from now. Two questions, one question --

MR. SESTANOVICH: I grew up in Singapore and Chinese New Year was a very big holiday for us, and – (laughter) --

QUESTION: And I have two short questions on China.

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yeah.

QUESTION: The first question is how will the retrenchment --

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- affect the Administration’s China policy?

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yeah.

QUESTION: The second question is: You mentioned the Congress will have more interference in U.S. policy in the next five year --

MR. SESTANOVICH: Mm-hmm, yeah.

QUESTION: -- and the President will be in the White House for another three years.

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yeah.

QUESTION: So how will this – what kind are the consequences of this, also for the Chinese – for China policy – for the Administration’s China policy?

MR. SESTANOVICH: Well, American presidents don’t serve as long as Chinese presidents, so – (laughter) --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. SESTANOVICH: -- so the Chinese officials – and sometimes, it’s much less than that – so Chinese officials probably say, “Why are you always coming and going and we don’t know who’s in charge?” They also are likely to ask, “Well, why can’t you control the Congress?” A system of divided powers is hard for any foreign country to deal with, and American diplomats always get this complaint from other governments: “It’s so hard to understand who makes policy in your country.”

How does retrenchment affect relations with China? We don’t know yet. The President, for example, said three years ago in Australia that the retrenchment would not affect American forces in the Pacific. Is he going to be able to keep that promise to American allies? How much will American allies count on their close relationship with the United States? How successful will the United States be in trying to forge a Trans-Pacific Partnership? We don’t know that yet either.

This is not anything experts can predict. They can only speculate. I think one thing that is important is that good results on those issues depend on strong presidential leadership, partly because our Congress is always very confused. Not led by a single – doesn’t have a single leader. It has, as people like to say, 535 secretaries of state. So the President’s judgment and strategy are supposed to compensate for that.

QUESTION: I would also like to bring your attention to – Hajime Matsuura.

MR. SESTANOVICH: Great. (Laughter.) Just keep talking. I will --

QUESTION: Okay. Hajime Matsuura, columnist with Japan’s Sankei. You talked about this potential rise of tension surrounding China and East Asia, but when it comes to, like, business or economy, China and U.S. are the best friends --

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- the most important trading partners, investment partners. And interested to know how this close relationship will affect diplomacy. That’s my first question. And second is: Since my home country may appear in the two context like – also with the relationship with Korea, I’d like to – I’m interested to learn how you analyze the agenda of Prime Minister Abe. Do you think he’s a revisionist? And how – and also interested in how you analyze the perception held by the Obama Administration. (Inaudible.)

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yeah. Let’s see. The first one was strong trade relations between the United States and China, you’re absolutely right. Nothing that the Administration proposes in East Asia means that it will be less interested in good economic relations with China. Absolutely to the contrary. These two countries have a mutual interdependence, and it’s very strong. I heard an important journalist saying a couple of weeks ago to an Administration official, “Wouldn’t the worst thing for the United States be if Chinese growth dropped,” because that would damage the American economy too.

QUESTION: Just (inaudible) since last week.

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yeah. So that’s – there’s no doubt about that. There – this is not a rivalry in which one side wants bad things for the other side. That’s not anybody’s goal. But each side has uncertainties and suspicions about the other that have to be resolved while maintaining a good economic relationship.

Now you asked about Japan. And I think Americans are mostly unaware of the kinds of debates that are going on in Japan and of the – some of the implications of ideas that people around the prime minister have about Japan’s role, Japan’s past, the history of the 20th century. And that is – that’s a problem that could become greater in the future and undermine the confidence of Americans in Japanese policy. That hasn’t happened yet, but it’s always a problem for allies to understand whether they have the same strategic concept. And for the United States and Japan to keep cooperating in the beneficial way that they have over many, many decades will require a lot of skill in the next few years.

QUESTION: Oh, me now?

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yes.

QUESTION: Turkish News Channel, Gulveda Lama. I would like to ask about Russia --

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- which is your topic, obviously. And I mean with the NSA and Snowden granted asylum in Russia and not knowing what else Snowden has – do you think that has given Russia leverage over United States in playing more active role in global politics, especially in regards of Syria? Because United States started – really was very harsh in the beginning towards the Syrian regime, Assad, and then settled for chemical weapons to be removed and so on and on. And it looks like Russia is actually not dictating but sort of leading the negotiations towards what will accommodate them and continue their cozy relationship, their relationship with Assad regime. What is your perspective on that?

MR. SESTANOVICH: Well, if you’re suggesting that Snowden has been a really useful lever for Russia in trying to change American direction in Middle East policy, I think that’s not correct. I would say Snowden has done a great deal of damage to mutual confidence between Russia and the United States and angered American officials. The granting of asylum to Snowden was seen as a provocative and hostile act. Generally, senior officials with a responsibility for foreign policy don’t make decisions based just on emotion, but I think people were quite angry with the Russians about this.

QUESTION: And the President himself – he canceled his bilateral meeting with President Putin.

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yes. He had other reasons for that, but I think that it probably – except for Snowden, he would have had that meeting.

In the case of Syria, I don’t think it was Snowden that made it possible to reach an agreement. It was the fact that the United States – that the President wanted the result that President Putin proposed. American policy was not at its most successful over the summer in dealing with Syria, and many people here criticized the Administration’s handling of it. But I think it’s clear that the President wanted to avoid military intervention. And Putin gave him the option to do that. Snowden didn’t make that possible. Snowden was, if anything, a kind of obstacle to it, because he was an obstacle to good coordination between Russia and the United States.

It is possible that the damage done to Russian-American relations from the Snowden affair and from other misunderstandings and disagreements over the past couple of years, that in time that damage can be undone. But I think right now the legacy of those disagreements is still quite strong.

MS. GRUNDER: Just to continue this trip around the world --

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yes.

MS. GRUNDER: -- we have a question from Washington, from a reporter named Sonia Schott of Diario las Americas. And she’s asking if you could speak on the lack of interest in promoting democracy in Latin America as part of U.S. foreign policy.

MR. SESTANOVICH: I think it’s true that over the past decade American policymakers have just paid less attention to Latin America, whether it’s democracy promotion or anything else. Latin America represents a set of opportunities and challenges for American policymakers that they often say they would like to address more as a higher priority, and then they don’t get around to it. And I think that’s just true across the board.

I know that there are Latin American countries that welcome that loss of focus, that say it’s great that we have the United States paying so little attention to us. There are others who say we’re missing out on opportunities for greater cooperation that would be good for everybody. But beyond that, I don’t think I have much to add.

QUESTION: Hi, Gabriel Mellqvist from Sweden’s Business Daily. Just a short follow-up on the TTIP negotiations, the trade agreement you mention.

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yes.

QUESTION: Can you tell me a little bit more about the approval that the President needs from Congress and is it likely he’ll get it? And what interest do the Republicans have in giving him such an approval?

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yeah. This is what’s called fast-track legislation in the – are you all familiar with how this works? I’m not a trade expert, but the House and Senate vote that they will expedite and simplify votes on trade legislation so as to make it possible for them to pass or be defeated, but at any rate come to a vote. I don’t remember when fast-track authority lapsed, but it was – usually when the Congress votes this, it’s for a specific period of time. And the President does not now have that authority to send a bill to the Congress that they will handle in this way. So he’s got to get a vote – a new vote – in order to create the possibility of getting an agreement through.

Republicans have traditionally been all for free trade agreements. They’re more divided on these issues right now. And certainly the TTIP agreement doesn’t yet exist. And if/when it does get presented to the Congress, it will surely excite a lot of opposition, because all trade agreements do. There’s really almost nothing quite as divisive as a trade agreement, because all of the industries that think they might lose something mobilize against it.

What outlook the Republican leadership takes at that point I can’t predict. But I think it’s not clear that this is an agreement that will be ready for a vote in this presidential term. But if it is going to be possible, the President will need to prepare the ground by getting fast-track authority.

QUESTION: Hi. Dimitri Soultogiannis with STAR CHANNEL, Greece. This is more on the economy side. You mentioned the strengthening of the American ties to Europe. How concerned, if there is a concern, do you think the U.S. Government is in regards to the financial instability in Europe and the austerity measures posed by the IMF, especially in certain countries like the European south? Do you think we’re going to hear anything about that, or is that going to affect the U.S.-EU relations, if any?

MR. SESTANOVICH: This is not my field, but I can tell you that the Administration has from time to time raised the question with European officials, and that means governments and bankers, as to – and the European Commission, as to whether the Europeans needed to push a stronger stimulus of their economy. I think the World Bank projects growth in the EU this year of sort of one and a half percent, something like --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. SESTANOVICH: Sorry?

QUESTION: Yes, one and a half.

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yes. And the forecast growth for the United States is 2.8. So the American economy is significantly outperforming the European economies taken as a whole. From the standpoint of American economic interests, a stronger economy in those markets – Europe is its – one of its best markets – would be advantageous. The United States has never wanted to make this a deep and divisive issue for obvious reasons, because it wants good relations and cooperation with European governments, most of whom are political allies of the United States. But I think there is probably another problem at work here, and that is Europe hasn’t really been treated as one of the high priorities in foreign policy for the Administration. And that is characteristic – I’m sorry to keep coming back to my own theme of retrenchment. It’s characteristic of retrenchment presidents. They generally say to allies, “You should take care of this yourself. We’ve really got other things on our mind.” And so it’s not really a surprise that with the President focused on winding down wars, on specific diplomatic initiatives, that Europe would take a – would sort of fall to a second tier in American priorities.

I think this is very shortsighted and unfortunate because the future of Europe and the United States really does depend on what Toria Nuland calls achieving a kind of trans-Atlantic renaissance. There are voices in the American government that favor a higher priority for Europe in American strategic thinking. But on a day-to-day basis, that’s not what grabs the attention of American policymakers.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi. (Inaudible) from Norway’s Business Daily.

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yeah.

QUESTION: I was wondering if I could ask a question on Ukraine and --

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- what you think the Administration is thinking on that issue. You see the events unfolding there. And secondly, the recent release of Khodorkovsky in Russia – how should that be viewed, as some sort of window dressing ahead of the Olympics, or a genuine move towards rule of law and so forth?

MR. SESTANOVICH: Let’s take Ukraine first. I think the persistence of the protests in Ukraine has taken almost everyone by surprise, and that’s in European governments as well as in the United States Government. You have not seen a very strong focus on this issue from the Administration, but I think that’s for a lot of understandable reasons. They have done some – taken some important measures, raising questions about visa restrictions for officials who are engaged in repression, but they’re not trying to grab hold of this situation and interpose themselves as mediators in the way that was true in the Orange Revolution, for example, in 2004, in significant part because European leaders haven’t done so as much as they did in 2004.

There is a kind of exasperation with the Ukrainian Government that makes officials wary of trying to negotiate with them. I might add that Russian officials often express just as much exasperation with the Yanukovych government. I’ve heard from pretty high-level Russians that they expect Ukraine to default on its loans in two or three years’ time, and certainly the charge has been publicly made in Russia that this was a bad gamble for President Putin to take because there’s no way Ukraine can repay the money that he has lent them.

The Ukraine is an issue that has not commanded the top level of attention in Washington, but it has some very strong advocates at the second level. And if American and European officials can see an opening, you may see greater activism. But right now, I think there’s a lot of confusion as to what the right way forward is.

About Khodorkovsky: I was on a panel discussion about a week before Khodorkovsky was released, and someone said – asked about him. And one of the other panelists said there’s no chance Khodorkovsky will be released as long as Putin is president, and he challenged the rest of us to say whether we agreed with that. And we all said yeah, probably. Yeah, that’s probably right. (Laughter.) So this release took many people by surprise. And I think it is an example of how Putin likes to operate. He likes the politics of surprise. But that doesn’t mean that this was something he completely controlled on his own. I think he was in some ways reluctant to let Khodorkovsky go, and he knows that there – that the impact of it will be a little – is a little hard to predict. Khodorkovsky has not come out swinging. He has not blasted Putin in a way that some people had hoped for. But will he become an active force in supporting Russian civil society and pursuing the release of political prisoners, for example? I think probably. And in that respect he may become a nuisance for Putin again.

MS. GRUNDER: Do you have time for one more?

MR. SESTANOVICH: Sure.

QUESTION: (Inaudible), I’d like to ask you about this notion of a trans-Atlantic renaissance.

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yeah.

QUESTION: I wonder when that term will refer to the relationship between the United States and Africa. The President will host a number of African heads of state in August in a U.S.-Africa dialogue. So I wonder what Africa represents to this President over the next two years.

MR. SESTANOVICH: It’s a good question because it’s another region that has not commanded top-tier attention generally.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. SESTANOVICH: Yes. This is a President, whatever you think of each of his policies, who prioritizes, and he knows what he wants to take care of, and other things are pushed to the side.

There’s an interesting change in the outlook that American officials have toward Africa, which I think has not yet expressed itself in policy. If you ask American officials about Africa, particularly ones who don’t know very much about it, like me, very quickly you’ll hear them say – I think this is true – six of the 10 fastest-growing economies last year were in Africa. This is said with astonishment by American officials because it means that something has been happening that they weren’t really aware of, and that there is more potential for a differentiation among the stories that African governments have to tell.

For a long time, American officials got used to thinking of Africa as just a succession of bad-news stories, with the exception of heroics by Nelson Mandela. They tend to think these are economies with poor prospects, governments that don’t run well, not promising partners for the United States. Now they’re taking a new look at Africa, and the President’s meeting is an example of that. There’s a kind of awareness that while Americans weren’t looking, Africans began solving some of their own problems.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) the Chinese.

MR. SESTANOVICH: I hear a lot about that. (Laughter.) And I’ve heard a lot on both sides – (laughter) – of the story.

MS. GRUNDER: Thank you so much --

MR. SESTANOVICH: Okay. Great.

MS. GRUNDER: -- for coming today.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. SESTANOVICH: Pleasure.

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