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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

2014 Foreign Policy Priorities for the Obama Administration

Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications
Washington, DC
January 29, 2014

4:00 P.M. EST


MR. RHODES: Thanks. Thanks, everybody. It’s really good to be back here at the Foreign Press Center. Let me just begin by giving a brief overview of what the President talked about in the State of the Union, elaborate on that a little bit, some of the upcoming events we’re focused on, and then take your questions.

First of all, I think what you saw in the State of the Union address last night was a continuing theme throughout this Administration, which is that we’re in a period of our foreign policy where we are winding down what has been over a decade of war for the United States and Iraq and Afghanistan and with terrorism, and pivoting to a broader agenda, diplomatic and otherwise. That means that we have several key priorities heading into the rest of the calendar year.

First, obviously, on Afghanistan, we have some important decisions to make about the future of our relationship with Afghanistan. We’ll be winding down and ending our combat mission at the end of 2014. We have a bilateral security agreement that we have negotiated with the Afghans. We’re awaiting their signature so that the President then can make decisions about the nature of a potential follow-on force to do the two missions of counterterrorism against al-Qaida and training and assisting Afghan forces.

Beyond that, the President talked about the evolving threat that we face from terrorism, as al-Qaida’s core in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been significantly degraded, but we’ve seen challenges from al-Qaida affiliates and other extremists in different parts of the world. He put an emphasis on our efforts to strengthen the capacity of partners in dealing with terrorism, whether it’s in Yemen or Iraq. For instance, we’re providing additional support to the government there, Mali, where we’ve been supporting the French-led effort to strengthen the Government of Mali. And I think this is an important theme of moving from the United States, dealing with this issue through large military deployments to more focused capacity-building efforts.

He also talked about the need to get off what he referred to as a permanent war footing. And this refers to some of the tools, capacities, and authorities that the United States has claimed since 9/11. There are several that he mentioned last night that’ll be priorities for us in the upcoming year: continuing to put limits and oversight and accountability on the use of drones, reforming our surveillance programs in the aftermath of the disclosures – and he obviously spoke about this recently in an extended speech – and also, I think, laying out his ambition to once again make an effort to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

We have transferred over 80 detainees now since we took office this past year. So we’ve ramped up those transfers again. Congress has relieved some of the restrictions on transfers, so we believe that will allow us to continue the pace of detainee transfers to other countries. The moratorium has been lifted on transfers to Yemen, so that opens another avenue to reduce the detainee population. Ultimately, we’ll need further help from Congress to make sure we have the flexibility we need to both bring those to justice that we want to bring to justice at the prison in Guantanamo, and also complete the transfer process.

Beyond these issues, he lifted up several diplomatic priorities, particularly in the Middle East. He spoke of three of them. Our ongoing efforts to not just resolve the chemical weapons issue in Syria, but the underlying conflict in Syria through the Geneva II process. Obviously a key priority for us this year will be the Iran negotiations, certainly a front and center priority for the President as we enter the six-month period of negotiation with the Iranian Government, and the Middle East peace effort that Secretary Kerry is leading, and talks with the Israelis and Palestinians.

More broadly, I think, the President spoke of our global agenda. I won’t exhaust this because we’ll have questions on this. Clearly, the pivot to the Asia Pacific region continues to be a defining focus of our Administration. It manifests itself in economic and commercial issues, particularly the TPP negotiations that are ongoing, our commitment to our allies in the region, and our security posture, which we’ve modernized and reformed and continued to do so going forward, and also our support for the democratic development in the region, and he once again underscored our commitment to the reform process in Burma. And we’ll have opportunity to travel to the Asia Pacific this year.

In Latin America, I think he once again underscored the importance of our commercial relationships there, which we’ve prioritized as an export region. We have the North American Leaders’ Summit coming up next month in Mexico, and that will be an opportunity for us to work with Canada and Mexico to further integration of our efforts on commercial issues, but also our cooperation on border and security issues. But also, he highlighted our exchange programs, and we’ve ramped up our exchange programs in the Americas, particularly with the 100,000 Strong program.

In Africa this year, I’d just note that we have the summit of Heads of State and Government from Africa who will be hosted here in Washington in August. This is a very significant event, first of its kind for the United States. It will continue the type of effort the President led during his trip to focus on our support for security, greater commercial trade and investment relationships, and also democratic development in Africa. And he also highlighted our Power Africa initiative, which I think we see as a signature effort to double access to electricity on the continent. We also have a significant exchange program in Africa that we’re building out this year, the Young African Leaders program.

And then finally on Europe, we have travel coming up this year to Europe – multiple trips to Europe, beginning in March when we’ll be attending the Nuclear Security Summit at The Hague, a meeting with the EU in Brussels, and traveling to Italy. The TTIP negotiations that he launched in last year’s State of the Union are obviously a centerpiece of our efforts with Europe, as is our effort to continue to modernize NATO, particularly as we look beyond the Afghan war, and the summit in Wales will be an important opportunity for that.

Coming up, we have, obviously, in addition to the North American Leaders’ Summit, visits from the French President coming up next month, as well as the President of Haiti. And I’ll just close with a piece of news. President Obama will be hosting King Abdullah of Jordan on February 14th at Sunnylands, the Annenberg estate in Rancho Mirage, California. So I see some of our – some of you may have covered the summit that he had with the Chinese president. This will be an important opportunity for the U.S. and Jordan – close friends, historic partners – that have worked together to promote peace, prosperity, and reform in the region. The President has developed a close working relationship with King Abdullah.

So they’ll have an opportunity in the informal setting of Sunnylands to discuss how we can strengthen the U.S.-Jordan strategic partnership and advance our cooperation on political, economic, and security matters. I’m sure that they’ll also discuss regional developments like the Middle East peace process and Syria.

So we very much look forward to hosting King Abdullah at Sunnylands. It’ll provide an important forum at an important time for us to consult with one of our key regional allies and partners.

With that, I’m happy to take questions. I don’t know – do you want me to call on people or do you want to?

MS. BROWN: Either way.


MS. BROWN: Let me first just lay a few of the ground rules for the questions. Please raise your hand, as many of you are. I ask you to wait for the microphone. We are transcribing this, so we need you to have the microphone before you state your question. Please also identify yourself by name and outlet. We have a lot of people here today, so I do please ask you to keep your questions to single questions and straightforward questions.

Our colleagues in New York, we will get to you, as I see you’re already at the podium. We’ll get to you in due order, and Ben, if you would like to call, that is fine.

MR. RHODES: Okay, sure. Well, we’ll start in the front here. Yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Donghui Yu with China Review News Agency. Is the White House arranging another summit between President Obama and President Xi? Because we have seen news reporting that the two presidents may have meetings on the sideline of the nuclear summit in March. Could you please confirm that? How necessary do you think for the two presidents to meet again after last June summit (inaudible)? Thank you.

MR. RHODES: Yeah. Well, it’s a good question. We have not locked in and scheduled meetings with the Chinese president. However, were he to be at The Hague at the same time as President Obama, I think we would certainly make it a priority for President Obama and President Xi to see each other at The Hague. We believe it’s important to have regular consultations at a high level, including the level of the presidents, to keep the U.S.-China relationship moving forward.

I think the two leaders set out a very broad agenda at Sunnylands. That included our continued dialogue on economic issues where we share a lot of common interests and have occasional differences. At the same time, if you look at the other challenges we’re facing, U.S.-China cooperation is essential. So, for instance, on the Iran negotiations, China has been with us in the P5+1. On North Korea, we sought to increase our collaboration with China to avoid destabilization and pursue denuclearization on the peninsula. Beyond that, we’ve had a number of discussions about maritime security, how to avoid any provocative actions or inadvertent escalation in relation to territorial disputes, and what the U.S. has sought to do is reinforce clear rules of the road and peaceful dialogue for resolving these issues. That, I think, would be an area of natural discussion for the two presidents.

So there’s a very broad agenda. I expect that they’d be able to address that at the Nuclear Security Summit, provided they have time to see each other on the sidelines there. And we’ll make sure that they’re continuing regular interactions throughout the course of the year.

Let’s see – I want to ask – skip around and we’ll go right there. Yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ben. Nadia Bilbassy with Al Arabiya Television. Yesterday, President Obama in the State of the Union said that he’s willing to stand with people who is demanding freedom. Would he look and address the Syrian people and say that he did everything possible to stop the killing of 120,000 people? In other words, is he satisfied with his strategy in Syria?

And on the Geneva talk, President Brahimi said this morning that the maximum he expect is to break the ice. What is the best-case scenario that the White House expecting from Geneva II? Thank you.

MR. RHODES: Mm-hmm. Well, first of all, I don’t think any of us will be satisfied so long as conflict continues, the human suffering continues in Syria. I think that often, this question is posed from the standpoint that the U.S. could be intervening militarily in a way that could resolve the conflict. And frankly, it’s been our assessment that not only would there be huge costs and consequences associated with a U.S. military action, but ultimately, that wouldn’t resolve the underlying political differences that have led to the conflict that has continued for the last several years.

Our positions in terms of what we believe needs to happen in Syria are clear. First of all, we believe on the humanitarian side that there needs to be a continued effort by the international community to provide relief for the Syrian people. And the U.S., as the major – the principal humanitarian donor, has also sought to rally other countries not just to provide pledges of relief, but to work with the UN, with NGOs, with – frankly, through the Syrian Government as necessary to provide humanitarian access so that food, medicine is flowing into the country, reaching populations who need it, but also to work with the neighboring states who have huge burdens in Lebanon, in Jordan, in Iraq, in Turkey, so that they are receiving support for all the refugees they’re hosting. And I can assure you that this will be a topic with King Abdullah of Jordan given how much strain they’re under from the refugee population. So, one track is the humanitarian track.

A second track is clearly the political effort through Geneva II. The U.S. position is that Geneva I identified a transition to a new executive authority as the goal for the Geneva process. We do not see any scenario whereby President Assad could be legitimate as the leader in that transition period; he has simply lost legitimacy with his – too many of his people and too much of the international community. So we have been very clear that a process that allows some elements of the government to continue to participate in that governing authority but that brings in the opposition, particularly the more moderate opposition that we have been supporting, is the best outcome, and frankly, the only feasible outcome that can bring an end to the conflict. That’s not going to be accomplished in one meeting or one series of discussions. At least in Geneva II, we were able to get the opposition and the government in the same room. We were disappointed in the approach taken by the government to some of those discussions, but frankly, there’s no alternative but to keep at it.

There are some issues that can be dealt with immediately, like humanitarian access, like amnesty, that could give greater confidence to the Syrian people, particularly the opposition, that their rights are being respected and some of their urgent needs are being met. But we also want to make sure we’re keeping focused on the ultimate objective, which is this political settlement.

We’ve also been talking to the Russians about this given their unique relationship with the Assad regime. And frankly, it was an important subject of the President’s conversation with President Putin recently, and we’ll continue to try to do that because – this leads me to the last thing I was going to say – the chemical weapons agreement. I think that demonstrated that the U.S. and Russia can try to work together to pursue outcomes in Syria. We get that chemical weapons elimination doesn’t solve the underlying problem, but it does settle an important interest of the United States and the world to not see chemical weapons used against the Syrian people. We’d like to see that agreement fully implemented, but again, at the same time, I think we’ll have to stay focused on the Geneva II process.

Yeah. Andrei.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ben. Andrei Sitov from TASS from Russia. Obviously, Ukraine, which was a focus of the Russian-EU summit, we all have seen American and European officials walk the streets and squares in Kyiv and basically encouraging the protestors. The Russians obviously regard this as direct interference in internal affairs of a sovereign country, if you want to respond to that. My question is: Do you keep in contact with the leaders of the Ukrainian opposition, and what do you encourage them to do?

And frankly, Ben, since we were supposed to meet here for the NSA speech, I’ve read that the Americans and the Brits having arrangements where the Americans spy on the Brits, the Brits spy on the Americans, and you swap the information and circumvent the ban on domestic spying. Is it true or not? Thank you.

MR. RHODES: Well, on your first question on Ukraine, the United States supports a set of universal values around the world, and you’ve heard us speak about this, and that includes the right of free expression, of peaceful protest. And so we did have significant concerns over some of the laws that were passed in Ukraine that impose very severe restrictions on the ability of people to express themselves peacefully, to protest, to demonstrate on behalf of their political views.

At the same time, we’ve been in touch with President Yanukovych. Vice President Biden has spoken to him several times. And we’ve been in touch with the opposition, and I think we are a country that has relationships across the spectrum in Ukraine. I think the goal we seek is, number one, we want all sides to remain peaceful, so the crackdown that we’ve seen on peaceful protests has been deeply concerning. At the same time, we’ve, of course, conveyed to the opposition the importance of remaining peaceful in their demonstrations.

At the same time, we’d also like to see – in addition to those laws being reviewed so that peaceful protest is respected, we’ve also encouraged President Yanukovych to pursue a more inclusive government that brings in some of the different elements who’ve been expressing themselves in Ukraine. He’s expressed a desire to do that. Again, we would like to see a more inclusive government that can bring together the people of Ukraine.

Again, this isn’t because we’re seeking to impose a solution; it’s because, frankly, it’s our assessment, and I frankly think an assessment that’s been expressed by both the opposition and President Yanukovych, that some form of coming together is going to be necessary to move beyond the current political impasse.

The last thing I’d say about Ukraine, though, is that we also believe that Ukraine’s orientation and continued integration towards Europe and the West is important because there is a set of common values and common history, and also, frankly, because we believe it can be mutually beneficial to Ukraine, to Europe, and the United States to have closer ties on issues like trade and political relations. That doesn’t have to come at the expense of Russia, for instance. We understand that as a neighbor and a country with its own longstanding ties to Ukraine, Russia is going to have a close relationship with Ukraine as well. We believe that they can continue their European path while maintaining good relations with their neighbors, and so that’s the outcome we’re going to pursue.

On the NSA piece, look, on the U.S. and the United Kingdom, we collaborate very closely on intelligence matters, as we do with countries like Canada and Australia and New Zealand. I wouldn’t suggest it’s for the purpose of spying on one another’s citizens, though. It’s more a historical relationship that dates back to World War II that allows us to cooperate on dealing with threats like counterterrorism and other security challenges like proliferation. And so the type of transparency that we’re aiming to bring on our surveillance activities, I think, is meant to define for the world here’s what we do use this – the surveillance capability for – and the President specified those purposes – and here’s what we don’t use it for, and we don’t use it for the purpose of simply spying on, reading the content of emails, or monitoring phone calls of ordinary citizens. They’re clearly enumerated national security purposes.

Russia certainly has its own intelligence activities, so we’re not unique in the world in pursuing this type of activity. We are somewhat unique in now being more transparent about it. And hopefully, we’ll continue to be able to add to that over the course of the year.

Okay. We’ll go to the gentleman over here.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. I’m Pablo from BBC Brazil. I’d like to ask about what kind of outrage will develop towards countries that were uncomfortable with the revelations of spying, and particularly if you can mention some countries and if you are planning to reschedule President Dilma’s visit to the U.S. this year.

MR. RHODES: No, it’s no secret that there are certain countries that, both because of the disclosures that were made and also because of their own histories, were particularly vocal in expressing their concerns about the NSA. Brazil and Germany, for instance, I would put high on that list. In the hemisphere, of course, Mexico was another country that was a subject of a lot of the disclosures.

With respect to Brazil, Susan Rice is going to continue her consultations, including, I believe, with the foreign minister tomorrow. And what we’ve said to the Brazilians is we’ll continue to try to provide you with as much information as we can about the nature of our intelligence activities that, again, we believe are certainly not directed personally, for instance, at President Rousseff, but rather are focused on the types of national security categories that the President went through in his speech.

We don’t expect that any country will fully accept or embrace our approach, but we think, through greater transparency, regular dialogue, we can at least give greater understanding to these governments about what it is we are and aren’t doing. And I think with Brazil, we’ve certainly come a long way in terms of being able to convey information to them, share information to them – again, make it clear to them what is the subject of our surveillance and what is not. I will leave it to President Rousseff to make her own statements and determinations about whether she is satisfied or would like to see further steps taken by the United States.

I would note that I think President Rousseff recognizes that the U.S.-Brazil relationship is significant for both of our countries and for the entire hemisphere, if not the entire world, that we have tremendous economic and commercial ties that serve the interests of both our countries, that we cooperate on issues related to energy and regional security, and we’re cooperating with Brazil on global forums, including on issues, frankly, like open government.

So we don’t want to see this surveillance debate impede progress on all those other issues, and we’d like to get the relationship back to a place where we’re able to have these discussions and maybe even occasional differences about our intelligence activities, but we’re able to move forward on a broader agenda.

With respect to her state visit, I think she and the President decided it was best to postpone that, given how much attention would have been focused on this at the time. I think it’s something we’d like to revisit when President Rousseff is comfortable that we’ve moved beyond this period in our relations. So we’ll continue to look for opportunities to host President Rousseff if they become available.

I’d – in the hemisphere, I’d only just note that Mexico is another country we’ve been in very frequent contact with on these issues, and the President’s ability to see President Pena Nieto at the North American Leaders’ Summit will be important. The President spoke to President Pena Nieto shortly before he made his speech, and so was able to share some of the direction that he was taking. And so we believe that our key partners, such as Mexico and Colombia among them, we’re going to be able to move forward effectively even as we continue to deal with the disclosures.


QUESTION: Hi. President Obama – Pinar Ersoy from Turkish daily MILLIYET. President Obama counted Prime Minister Erdogan among his closest partners and as a world leader, yet they haven’t spoken on the phone since August 7th. That makes almost seven months. Even when an operation to Syria was on the table, they didn’t phone each other. Are they not as close anymore? And if that’s the case, has the recent events in Turkey, including Gezi Park protests and the probe – the corruption allegations played any role in that?

MR. RHODES: Yeah, I don’t remember exactly the last time they spoke. You may, of course, be right. I think that over the course of the last five years, the President has been able to cooperate very effectively with Prime Minister Erdogan. And frankly, that remains – if you look at the regional agenda that we have, we’re still working very closely with Turkey. And I know Secretary Kerry, for instance, just recently saw Foreign Minister Davutoglu. So on issues related to Syria, related to the refugee population, on issues of regional security and counterterrorism cooperation, Afghanistan, Turkey has been supportive of diplomacy with Iran. On that foreign policy agenda, I think that we have maintained effective cooperation with Turkey.

It’s certainly the case that Turkey is dealing with significant challenges at home as well, which we understand. I think as a general matter, we have made clear that we reject the assertions that somehow those challenges are related to actions taken by the United States Government. We are not in any way interfering in Turkey’s internal affairs, and so we’ve rejected suggestions that any difficulty, political unrest in the country, is somehow tied back to actions by the United States Government.

Ultimately, Turkey’s going to have to work through these issues, and the Turkish people will do so. They have a very strong democracy. They’ve got a commitment to democratic institutions and the rule of law. So we believe that Turkey can work through these challenges. We’ll support them as they do that. But on our foreign policy cooperation, we will continue to work collaboratively with Turkey.

So, again, I think that on the one hand, we – as an ally, we’ll continue to cooperate. On the other hand, Turkey is going to be working through these own issues. And if we speak out for certain values, as we do in any country, we’ll make clear that our support for the rule of law, our support for independent media, that applies to any country in the world, insofar as we raise concerns that Turkey needs to take steps to respect independent media, to respect the rule of law. That’s no different than any other country. That’s the same standard we would apply anywhere.

QUESTION: Have those allegations affected the trust relationship between the two countries at all?

MR. RHODES: Well, I think that they’re not helpful. I’m going to be candid with you. It’s – there’s a baseline of trust when you’re an ally that we, I think, maintain. Turkey’s a NATO ally. We cooperate as a matter of course on lots of different issues. I think as a general matter, we would reject the notion, again, that somehow the United States is – or our ambassador, for instance, is somehow involved in any of the political machinations inside Turkey. We’re not. And so that’s something we’ll continue to make clear.

Ultimately, as countries work through these – their own political challenges, it’s up to the leaders and people of Turkey to determine how that all plays out. We think that however it does, we’ll maintain a good relationship with the government.

MS. BROWN: If I could just ask again to please wait for the microphone for your questions. And one-part questions only, please.

MR. RHODES: Okay. We’ll go to the gentleman here. Yeah. No, here in the front row. Yeah.

QUESTION: Thanks, Ben. Ching-Yi Chang of Phoenix TV, Hong Kong. Yesterday, Japan’s Kyodo News reported that actually Vice President Biden told Japanese Prime Minister Abe, before he visited the controversial shrine, and they had tense conversation, and in the end the Vice President didn’t persuade Abe not to go to the shrine. And so is the President aware of Prime Minister Abe’s recent move? And if so, how concerned he is about the recent standoff among Japan and its neighbors? Thank you.

MR. RHODES: Well, we expressed disappointment in the decision to visit the shrine at the time. Obviously, every country and every leader, as I said in other cases here today, makes their own determinations about what to do. However, I think as a general matter, in the Asia Pacific region, we have counseled Japan, Korea – the Republic of Korea, China, to show some sensitivity to the very significant historical concerns that underpin a lot of these issues. Of course, everybody’s going to have their own views, but I think it’s important that there is respect for that history and the actions that are taken, and that’s what’s guided our approach.

And I think it’s particularly true at a time when, look, there are very difficult issues that are being worked through in the region. And we see heightened tensions at times, particularly over territorial disputes. Ultimately, those issues can only be resolved through a process of peaceful dialogue. And peaceful dialogue is facilitated when, I think, leaders take that extra step to try to reduce tensions.

And we’ve seen rhetoric from all sides that, at times, has fed tensions instead of trying to keep them down. As a general matter, whether it’s China and Japan working through their issues on the Senkakus, for instance, or whether it’s our allies, partners in Korea and Japan, we’d like to see, again, a constructive approach taken so that these issues can be dealt with through dialogue, historical concerns can be dealt with through sensitivity, and everybody can basically understand that we all benefit if the region is more stable, if there’s not the risk of escalation and inadvertent conflict.

And again, we’ve seen steps taken by different leaders at different times, different nations at different times, that have not advanced that principle. When we see that, we have spoken out about it. But as a general matter, I think the U.S. sees our role as supporting our allies, of course, which is a constant in our foreign policy, and then also trying to work through ways to reduce tensions.

Let’s see. I want to make sure I’m getting some geographical – yes, the gentleman here in the – with the beard.

QUESTION: Hi. Tuomas Niskakangas from Helsingin Sanomat, Finland. I’d like to ask about the Afghan security agreement. Is there a deadline now that things seems to be stalling? And what are the practical problems that arise if things don’t go forward and it doesn’t happen before the election?

MR. RHODES: So we made clear that the bilateral security agreement that’s been negotiated is a good agreement for both the United States and Afghanistan, and should be signed by the Afghan Government. We believe that that should happen as soon as possible, that there does not need to be further negotiation, that that text is agreed. And we’ve said that that needs to take place in the coming weeks, and so we don’t want to see if it delayed until after the election – that that, frankly, would not be an outcome that works for us.

And here’s the reason why – it’s the second part of your question: We have a significant amount of planning to do, both as it relates to our drawdown over the course of 2014, and potentially as it relates to any follow-on force. And if we don’t know that we have a BSA, we cannot plan to keep troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014.

So I’d break this into several categories. First of all, we need to be able to get together with our NATO allies, because their drawdown is going to be affected by whether or not there’s a BSA. Countries that are contemplating their own post-2014 presence are waiting to see whether or not there is a BSA and there’ll be a U.S. presence. So our ability to coordinate the alliance very much depends upon the certainty that we’re going to have a BSA. And so that’s one critical component of this.

The second is, again, the nature of our drawdown is affected by this because if we have a BSA, we will have to design a force to keep in Afghanistan after 2014 to carry out those two missions. If we don’t, the drawdown in 2014 will have to be all the way to having zero troops left in the country. So for all those reasons, we would like to make these decisions in the coming weeks. We don’t want to see it delayed until after the election. We – the President’s been very clear to us that even as we plan for potential options for a troop presence after 2014, in the event of a BSA, that we’re not going to keep troops in Afghanistan if there’s not a BSA. So we also have to plan for the contingency of zero – of not having troops in Afghanistan.

And so right now we’re doing – planning in all these areas, but we need to get certainty on the BSA question before we can make a decision about the size of a follow-on force, and because of the need to coordinate this planning internationally with the Afghan Government and within our own military, we still believe this needs to be done in the next several weeks and not delayed till after the election.

MS. BROWN: Perhaps we can go to New York.

MR. RHODES: Sure, yeah. So go to New York for the next question.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. My name is Robert Poredos. I work for Slovenian Press Agency. And Slovenian Government recently officially supported the candidacy of the ex-president, Danilo Turk, for the position of Secretary General of United Nations. And U.S. Ambassador (inaudible) commented a few days after that this might be a missed opportunity for the country. So I was just wondering, is that official position of the U.S.? Do you have the position on that? Or was that personal opinion?

MR. RHODES: We do not – we have not yet taken a position on the Secretary General, so – that is something that the U.S. Government will have to come to a determination on in the future, so I’m not familiar with the particular comment of the Ambassador, but we’ll make our views known diplomatically and publicly as we formulate a position on a very important post.

To go – I want to go to the back there, so maybe all the way in the back there, the one – yes, yeah, over there.

QUESTION: Hi, Ben. Thank you. My name is Nadia Tsao, Washington correspondent for Liberty Times, Taiwan. Our director (inaudible) of the Mainland Affairs Council is heading to China next month for meeting his counterpart, and maybe for prospect of the meeting between President Ma Ying-jeou and the President Xi. What do U.S. feel about the prospect of a pretty good dialogue and a summit between the two leaders? Thanks.

MR. RHODES: Well, when it comes to the question of a summit between the two leaders, that is something that obviously the – both sides would have to agree to. We have, as a general matter, supported cross-strait dialogue. We’ve encouraged the constructive approach that’s been taken to that dialogue by both President Xi and President Ma. As a friend to both sides, I think what we want to see is an outcome that, again, reduces any tension across the strait, and that I think pursues closer ties that benefit both the people of Taiwan and the people of the People’s Republic of China.

So I think as a general matter, the U.S. will continue to support cross-strait dialogue to see it advance and evolve over time, to see it address the different facets of the relationship across the straits. And ultimately, if that judgment is made by the leaders, that’s something we’d have to review at the time, and so we’ll await to see the outcome of those talks. In the meantime, we’ll continue our longstanding practice of supporting a One China policy, maintaining our friendship with the people and leaders of Taiwan as well in seeking to support dialogue cross-straits.

Yeah, to the gentleman there. Yeah.

QUESTION: Will the President be visiting Japan in April? And if so, what will be the topics of his meetings there?

MR. RHODES: Well, we haven’t made any particular announcements about the stops on our April trip to Asia. I will say though that the President is committed to going to Japan as a general matter. So I’m certain that he’ll be returning there as President and we’d like to do that as soon as we can. So we’ll give additional announcements on stops as we have them.

In terms of the agenda, I think that we see with Japan right now, first of all on the economic side, clearly TPP is front and center, and I think what we’ve seen is a lot of progress made in the TPP negotiations. As is the case with any trade negotiation, the last issues are the hardest issues and raise significant challenges domestically in all countries involved. And so we’re now dealing with those final issues. We believe as a general matter, it’s very good for Japan to be a part of TPP, and we’re going to continue to try to work through the outstanding issues on TPP with the Japanese and the other countries involved.

I think in terms of security, our alliance issues are always front and center. We believe that the alliance is very strong. There’s strong public support in both countries, there’s good cooperation. We’d like to see continued progress made in resolving the Futenma issue, for instance, and we’ve seen some movement forward there, and that’s a part of the broader modernization of the alliance, and so that will continue to be a topic. I think as it relates to regional security, we share concerns with North Korea’s provocative behavior and share the goal of denuclearization on the peninsula, so I’m sure that North Korea would be an agenda item.

And of course, in the general regional environment, we have encouraged efforts, again, to reduce tensions and promote dialogue. Obviously, we stand from – we start from the standpoint that we support our ally, Japan, in their security. But as a general matter, we believe regional stability would be enhanced, including Japanese security efforts are taken to reduce those tensions.

So there’s a broad security dialogue, a broad economic dialogue that we would have with the Japanese. Again, I think as a general matter, it’s one of our most important relationships in the world. We have a very prominent ambassador there now in Caroline Kennedy, who is also a very close, personal friend of the President’s. And so I think he would look forward to being able to travel there and we’d have no shortage of issues to discuss.

MR. RHODES: Yes. The lady here. Yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you. Sonia Schott with Diario las Americas. You mentioned Guantanamo. I would like to know if you have any deadline. And more broadly, you know that the OAS General Secretary was attending the select meeting in Cuba. I would like to know, how do you follow the developments in Cuba? And if you can make some comments on Venezuela, that will be great. Thank you.

MR. RHODES: Okay. First on Guantanamo, look, the President said in his State of the Union that he would like to finally realize his goal of closing Guantanamo this year, and I think the reason why is this: Guantanamo was opened after 9/11 around the time that we went into Afghanistan as part of the war that was launched after 9/11. And frankly, as 2014 is the year in which we are aiming to end the Afghan war, it stands to reason that we should be closing out some of the additional authorities and steps that were taken as a part of launching the Afghan war. So there’s a natural convergence in ending the Afghan war and closing Guantanamo. And frankly, many of those detainees originated from Afghanistan in the early days of the war. So the timing, I think, is driven by, obviously, the President’s general desire to close Gitmo, but also that he sees this as part of what he described as this permanent war footing we’re on that’s not sustainable.

Now – and how we do that? We’ve, again, transferred over 80 detainees already. We have now envoys at the State Department and the Defense Department who can work with other countries to facilitate transfers, and the NDAA, the National Defense Authorization bill, that recently passed Congress in December. Some of the more onerous restrictions and certification requirements on the Administration were relaxed. We have also lifted the moratorium on transfers to Yemen. So we see a pathway to transfer more detainees at a more rapid pace over the course of this year, and the President has directed us to do that.

At the same time, there are obviously still very stringent restrictions from Congress that remain, and so we’ll have to continue to try to lift those. Ultimately, if we’re going to bring some of these detainees to justice, and there are military commissions underway at Guantanamo, we’ll have to be able to hold those individuals, if they’re prosecuted, in facilities other than Guantanamo. And that is going to have to involve looking at the United States. And the President said at his speech in May that we need to look at military facilities in the United States that could hold detainees under the military commission effort that’s underway.

So, again, we believe there is the most momentum we’ve had in terms of reducing the population that we’ve had since 2009. There’s a pathway to accelerating transfers, there has been positive movement in Congress, and the war in Afghanistan is coming to a close. And all of these things will lead us to be making a push on Guantanamo this year.

On Cuba, as a general matter on regional issues, we understand that the nations of the hemisphere make their own determinations about the associations that they will join, about conferences that they will attend, so we respect that general process. I will say with respect to Cuba specifically, we have pursued changes in our own policies – in the first term, relaxed restrictions on family travel, remittances to the island. Certain types of travel to the island have – we’ve seen relaxed in terms of licensing. And we’ve also pursued migration talks and pragmatic cooperation when we can with the Cuban Government. So we’ve been open to exploring changes in our relationship and changes in a policy that, frankly, has not succeeded in bringing greater freedoms to the Cuban people.

At the same time, we also made very clear, though, that our concerns about human rights and freedoms for the Cuban people are still constant, and that ultimately, the policy we support are policies that bring greater freedoms to the people of Cuba, be it economic freedoms or political freedoms. And so the one concern, I think, that you’ve heard us express over the last several days is that around this conference, there have been some steps taken to harass or to silence political dissent, and we’d like to see countries, again, speak up for basic human rights that are in the Inter-American Charter. And that includes, again, freedom of expression and freedom for people to protest peacefully prominent among those.

So the American – if you look at the Americas, there’s been a great movement towards greater respect for human rights. We’d like to see that across the board, including in Cuba. And so we’ll continue to look at this balance as to how do we advance necessary changes that could improve the situation, but at the same time continue to express our concerns on these human rights issues.

I will say an important impediment has also been the continued imprisonment of Alan Gross. So long as you have somebody held unjustly, in our view, who also is suffering in terms of his humanitarian condition, that presents an obstacle. And so we’d like to see Alan Gross released as well.

The only thing I’d say about Venezuela is, look, we’ve made clear that we are open to a constructive relationship with the Government of Venezuela. Sometimes I find myself continually surprised by the different conspiracy theories that I read about in the newspaper. The U.S. does not have any designs, is not meddling in the affairs of Venezuela. So we’re open to a constructive relationship. And ultimately, we think that that would be good for the hemisphere. President Obama made very clear in his first term, and will in a second, that we’re not interested in fighting ideological debates from the Cold War or from about who did what in the 1970s. We’re interested in a future that is increasing integration across the Americas. And so that will guide our approach.

Yes. Lady here with the glasses.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. I’m Wei Xing from China Central Television. My first question – want to follow up the Yasukuni Shrine thing. We know that after the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit the Yasukuni Shrine, and the United States sent three top officials to that area – for example, William Burns and Daniel Russel. So is that – as some commenters say, (inaudible) the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s foreign policy is contradictory with American foreign policy in that region. So what is your comments on that?

And my second question is related to China. As we know, the China-U.S. is trying to build new, modern relationships. So how do you see in 2014 the relationship between China and the U.S.? Thank you so much.

MR. RHODES: Look, I think with respect to Japan, frankly, we are aligned with the Japanese on many issues in the region. The U.S.-Japan alliance is always going to be a cornerstone of our approach to the Asia Pacific. And ultimately, it’s been very good for the prosperity of the region. It’s facilitated trade and commerce. It has benefited the whole neighborhood, I think including China.

And on security issues, if you look at the key issues, whether it’s counter-proliferation, denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, Japan’s support for certain aspects of our efforts in Afghanistan, on development, the bottom line is we are very aligned with Japan in our interests and we cooperate very closely. That doesn’t mean from time to time we’re not going to have occasional differences. And I think the goals are the same, though. The goals are a secure Japan, a secure and stable Asia Pacific region, good relations ultimately between Japan and its neighbors. And so that’s the type of message that I’m sure Danny Russel, Bill Burns, and others were discussing with the Japanese.

With respect to China in 2014, again, I think that North Korea and Iran, key nonproliferation challenges will be key parts of our agenda.

Our trade and economic relationship is very broad and intertwined. I think we’ll want to continue our discussions on those issues.

Cyber security, we’ve initiated this dialogue, and I think we’ll continue to be able to talk to China about some of our concerns on cyber issues, particularly as it relates to intellectual property.

But maritime security, I think, will continue to be an issue. And there, again, what we’ve said is if you take an issue like the South China Sea, the U.S. is not a claimant, but we also believe that there should not be unilateral actions that seek to change facts on the ground or resolve these issues other than through dialogue and through multilateral established processes to adjudicate claims. So I think we’ll continue to discuss that agenda as well.

MR. RHODES: Let’s take a couple more. So – yeah, here in the front, and then – yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you. Irina Gelenska, Macedonian TV. I sent you, by the way, a request for a question by email. So the last meeting between the Secretary Kerry and the Greek prime – minister of foreign affairs and deputy prime minister, Minister Venizelos, they touched the name dispute, keeping in mind that this year is the summit of NATO, and Macedonia is ready for membership since 2008. Will the President Obama Administration have more active role into resolving the name dispute so Macedonia can become a member-state of NATO?

MR. RHODES: Mm-hmm. So we do not see it as our place to resolve this issue as the United States. What we are going to do is continue to support the efforts by the UN, and they’ve appointed an envoy who’s seeking to work with the two countries to resolve (inaudible). Ultimately, the goal should be continued Euro-Atlantic integration, closer ties across southeastern Europe, continued integration. So that’s the objective that we’ve set out. We believe the best process is a UN-led process. They have the expertise, they have the experience, they have the international legitimacy to work through this issue. So our approach for – certainly for the foreseeable future is going to be support that UN envoy, again with the objective being continued Euro-Atlantic integration.

Yes, we’ll go to the gentleman over here.

QUESTION: Thank you. In his State of the Union Address, the President said, “We will continue to focus on Asia Pacific.” He did not use “pivot” or “rebalance.” Is there any deliberation in his choice of words? Thank you.


MS. BROWN: Could you just tell us your outlet, please?

QUESTION: Aijun Yi with China’s Xinhua News Agency.

MR. RHODES: Yes. Well, look, I wouldn’t – I would not read anything into that. Rebalance, I think, is how we would describe the policy precisely because what we’re doing is we’re rebalancing our prioritization and resources in the world as we wind down the wars. So we’re rebalancing our economic focus through TPP. We’re rebalancing some of our securities through our defense budget, through our defense relationships. And we’re rebalancing through some of the people-to-people ties that we’ll be expanding this year, and we’re launching some exchange programs in the region. So I think rebalance speaks to this process of making sure that the U.S. is appropriately postured for the 21st century with the Asia Pacific as an emerging region. And so that, I think, would continue to be a good description of our policy.

Let’s take a couple more here. The gentleman right there with the glasses, yeah.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. My name is Xavier Vila, Public Radio headquarters in Barcelona. What would change for the U.S.-Europe relationship should Scotland become independent next September from the UK? And on a general matter, after that question, does the U.S. support the right of people, any people, to decide its own future through a referendum? Thank you.

MR. RHODES: I think with respect to the Scottish referendum, we would very much kind of defer to the process that the United Kingdom has set up that Prime Minister Cameron is leading. On the mother – on my mother’s side of the family, the McNutts can trace their origins to Scotland, I can tell you, so somewhere in me is the blood of a Scotsman. But that doesn’t mean that I take any opinion on the referendum. (Laughter.) It just means that I have a deep appreciation for the contributions made by the Scottish people over history.

Clearly, though, the United Kingdom is – we have no closer ally in the world, so we will watch with this in mind, and again, with respect for the process that’s been set up over many years in that country.

Look, but I also think that these decisions are unique to different countries, and ultimately, different countries have to work through their own process. So for instance, I wouldn’t infer – the U.S. is not going to take a position, for instance, on some issues that Spain may be considering in this space. Ultimately, I think history shows that different solutions are appropriate to different countries, different regions. Sometimes – and again, I’m not speaking specifically of any one particular region or country. I’m just saying that sometimes autonomy works, sometimes peoples end up being independent states, sometimes they’re unions. And so I think as a general matter, we support there being a process of reviewing these issues in each country, but ultimately, each country and each set of peoples is going to make their own determinations.

Okay, I just want to get a couple regional diversity – well, Nadia, I already – yes, the gentleman here. Yeah.

QUESTION: Alex Panetta calling from the Canadian press. I was going to ask you about the President’s statement in the State of the Union yesterday about Iran pleading for time to let diplomacy work. In the meantime, your other close friend and ally and northern neighbor Canada has taken quite a different approach on Iranian sanctions and wants to maintain them. And I’m just wondering whether the Administration has spoken to the Canadian Government about how helpful those sanctions are.

MR. RHODES: Yeah, and we’ve spoken to the Canadian Government about the agreement that was reached. I think that as a general matter, the sanctions relief that we are pursuing within the interim first-step agreement is limited, so this is valued at roughly $6 – or so billion, portioned over the period of the six months, and there are certain categories of sanctions that have been relaxed as well on gold or chemicals.

All that is to say that the broader international sanctions are still in place, so we are still enforcing the rest of our sanctions. Other countries like Canada are still enforcing their sanctions, and we think that that’s important because we don’t believe that the steps taken in the first-step agreement are sufficient for there to be a broader sanctions relief for the Iranian Government. So it is actually important that countries continue to enforce their sanctions and that the sanctions relief be kind of limited to what’s prescribed in the first-step agreement.

More generally on Iran policy, we understand Canada has always taken a very firm line. They share our objective of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Ultimately, at the end of the day, we believe that if we get a good agreement that places significant constraints on the Iranian program, provides assurance that it’s peaceful, provides unprecedented transparency, that we will share the details of that agreement with our allies, including Canada, and we’d be confident that they could see the importance of resolving this issue diplomatically.

We’ll take one more question, the lady in the middle here. Okay, we’ll take two more. (Laughter.) Her, then you. Yeah.

QUESTION: Han Yuan Liao from China News Service. I’ve got two questions on Japan-China. First question: Does the U.S. accept Japanese Prime Minister Abe to visit Yasukuni shrine again, or do you opposed it?

Second question about China’s new national security commission: Last week, China decided that President Xi Jinping will be the chairman of the country’s national security commission. And the meanwhile, Premier Li Keqiang will be deputy head of this commission. So this is a very high-level commission. I want to know how do you comment this. And how do you see the cooperation between U.S.-China in this field, I mean, between the national security authorities? Thank you.

MR. RHODES: Well, on the first question, look, I think our general principle on these issues, as I said, is that all leaders should demonstrate a degree of sensitivity to historical concerns. So I don’t want to speculate about hypotheticals or things that haven’t happened yet, but that’s been our baseline.

With respect to the Chinese leadership, I think our view has been that it’s important for the United States to have contacts across China’s leadership, that President Obama, has a relationship with Xi Jinping, but in the past he’s engaged with the Chinese premier. The Strategic and Economic Dialogue allows our officials to engage through State and Treasury here and the appropriate ministries in China. We’ve enhanced military-to-military ties – the point being that the relationship is so big and complicated and has so many issues at stake that we want to engage all of the various actors in the Chinese system. And clearly, the Chinese are, as they’ve consolidated their leadership transition, are putting people into these different specific positions. We will adjust our engagement appropriately so that we have lines of communication on a very regular basis.

QUESTION: Thank you. Inga Czerny from Polish Press Agency.


QUESTION: So I would like to ask if President Obama is going to Poland in June. He was invited for the anniversary of the first free elections in Poland. And what he would say about the last revelation on the CIA secret prison in Poland that was run under the administration of President Bush but there is now the investigation by Polish prosecution? Thank you.

MR. RHODES: Well, we have not made decisions about travel in June, so we’ll have to review that. The President really enjoyed going to Poland in 2011. I was with him in Warsaw. Again, I think as a general matter, Poland has been a stalwart ally of the United States in Afghanistan, on security issues. We’ve worked with them through NATO to do prudent planning on Article 5, to address capabilities like missile defense that are important to both of our countries. So the relationship is close. The economic relationship is important. But also, the President’s from Chicago so he knows plenty about the contributions of Polish Americans, too. And so we will be certainly looking for opportunities to engage Poland throughout the course of the year.

The anniversary is an important one. I think Americans were inspired by Poland’s democratic transformation, by the role played by Poland in standing up for freedom in Eastern Europe more broadly. So we’ll be commemorating that as well.

With respect to the past, in terms of our own role, the President spoke about this when he was a senator. We have taken steps over the course of the years to make sure that, as I said, we’re off of a permanent war footing that some of the more extraordinary authorities that we claimed after 9/11 are put on a more sustainable framework. I don’t want to comment on a Polish process. Ultimately, that’s something that the Polish Government and judicial system will work through. Other than to say as a general matter though, Poland has been a close partner of the United States on counterterrorism issues and continues to be. But I think we’re obviously in a very different place today in 2014 than we were in those days after 9/11. There’s been a lot of changes made (inaudible) the U.S.-Polish alliance.

And we’ll take one more given the intensity of confusion about – yeah.

QUESTION: Claudia Trevisan from the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo. Going back for tomorrow’s meeting between the Ambassador Susan Rice and the Brazilian foreign minister, what can we expect from the meeting? Regarding a state visit, what is needed for the state visit to happen this year?

And regarding Cuba, in which conditions do United States would be willing to discuss the end of the economic embargo that seems to be unanimously rejected by Latin America? Thank you.

MR. RHODES: Well, with respect to the meeting tomorrow, I think now that we’ve made a lot of decisions about our surveillance policies, it’s natural that we would want to continue to update the Brazilians firsthand about those decisions.

And to highlight a couple of areas that may be of interest to Brazil, we have decided to extend some of the protections that apply to American citizens to non-U.S. persons who are abroad. So when we look at things like how long does the U.S. hold certain metadata, how do we query that metadata in what situations, who has access to it, those types of issues, we are taking steps to extend those protections so that citizens in other countries know that they enjoy some of the protections that Americans do with respect to how metadata is collected and used.

Clearly, we took a number of other steps in terms of making clear the categories that we do collect intelligence for and the categories that we don’t. For instance, we don’t collect intelligence for economic and commercial advantage. So we can share some of the details of that with the Brazilians. Obviously, we made a statement about not collecting and pursuing surveillance on heads of state and government of close friends and allies unless there was a national security imperative. So there are a range of steps we took abroad that I think we’ll be addressing.

And we also, frankly, put a policy overview on our intelligence activities that is new in the sense that there is now a more regular review of intelligence collection by the President’s senior national security team to assure that it’s focused on our priorities and not on areas that are unnecessary.

With respect to the state visit, we really have not revisited this question of timing. When the two leaders last spoke about this, it was simply their view that for President Rousseff to visit in that environment, given all the disagreements and tensions that were manifested, it would not be as productive as it might be. So I think we’ll just have to see how this plays out in terms of how we can rebuild some trust with the Brazilian Government and the Brazilian people.

Again, I will say that ultimately it’s in our interest to have a close relationship. The U.S.-Brazil relationship is one of the most important relationships in the hemisphere, two biggest countries in the hemisphere. We benefit economically, commercially, from cooperation. I think our business communities have an interest in a deeper relationship. And we’re also working, again, on just about every important regional agenda item together.

Also, the President – President Obama had, I think, an affinity for President Rousseff – she’s a leader he has great respect for – but also the Brazilian people. I remember well our trip to Rio and Brasilia, and the ability for President Obama to speak to the Brazilian people, to travel to Favela, I think he feels a kinship with the Brazilian people that we would like to make sure we are able to revisit.

So as a general matter, we want to put the relationship on a firm footing. We want to move forward to build trust on these intelligence issues, but also take up a bigger agenda. And then, I think, we can consider whether to revisit the visit in that context.

On Cuba, look, President Obama has shown himself willing to look at changes in our policies, as I said. Our bottom line remains that we believe that there should be respect for human rights in Cuba, political and economic reforms that advance those opportunities for the Cuban people. The embargo, frankly, is not simply an act of the President, too; it’s an act of Congress. And there’s great congressional interest in making sure that we’re standing up for our democratic values in terms of our relationship with Cuba.

So those are constants in our policy. But we’re open to exploring pragmatic steps that can be taken, if they serve our interests, if they serve the interests of the hemisphere, if they serve the interests of the Cuban people.

Again, I would repeat the point I made earlier about Alan Gross, though, that so long as he is being held in a deteriorating humanitarian situation in Cuba, that is an impediment to improved relations. So we would very much like to see him released on a humanitarian basis, to, again, provide a different context for some of these issues.

But, I mean, I’d just close on this notion that I said at the – earlier, which is that we’re not seeking to continue debates from the ’60s and ’70s in the hemisphere. We’re seeking to pursue greater integration, and we’ve seen a lot of progress made. We’ve seen relations improve between the United States and countries that, in the past, we’ve had tensions (inaudible). But those have been reciprocal. We’ve seen countries pursue democratic reforms, we’ve seen countries reach out to the United States, and so that’s the type of step-by-step process that we believe can serve the interests of the hemisphere more broadly.

And with that --

QUESTION: Do you want the world to go to the Olympics?

MR. RHODES: We want – the world will go to the Olympics, and we want Team USA, though, to win every event at the Olympics, at least every event that we can. There are some events where even I, when I turn on the Winter Olympics, as an Olympics devotee, have to say I’m not familiar with. Our Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, though, is from Minnesota, and so many of our winter athletes hail from places like that in the north.

But no, look, I think the Olympics are a time when countries can come together and support something we all are invested in, which is athletic achievement. There have been these questions about security. We will work with the Russian authorities on that. We’ve offered our assistance. But ultimately, we want to see a successful Olympics, and particularly for U.S. athletes.


MS. BROWN: All right. We have to close the briefing at this time. I want to thank you for the generous amount that you gave us today. This officially closes the briefing. Thank you very much.

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