Background Briefing With Senior State Department Official on Acting Secretary Sullivan’s Trip to the NATO Foreign Ministerial

MODERATOR: Good afternoon, and thank you, everyone, for joining us for today’s background call previewing Acting Secretary Sullivan’s trip to the meeting of NATO foreign ministers. We’re joined today by [Senior State Department Official]. He will be referred to as Senior State Department Official during this call.

As a reminder, today’s call is on background, and it will be embargoed until the conclusion of the call. With that, I’d be happy to turn it over now to our senior State Department official for some opening remarks, and then we’ll take some questions. Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you for that, and thank all of you for participating in this call. We wanted to take the opportunity to preview this week’s meeting of the NATO foreign ministers. Acting Secretary John Sullivan will travel to Brussels to meet with 28 foreign ministers of the NATO alliance this coming Friday. As all of you know, ministerial is preparation for the upcoming NATO summit, which will take place July 11th and 12th. This is the fourth of five of these ministerials in the run-up to the 2018 summit, a total of two foreign ministerials and three defense ministerials. There will be a final defense ministerial next month before the summit.

The main focus of this ministerial for the United States is increased burden sharing, strengthening deterrence and defense, and strengthening NATO’s role in counterterrorism. The agenda will include a NAC working breakfast on Russia, a NAC session on projecting stability in the South, a working lunch on Afghanistan, and a NAC session on open door in Western Balkans.

The underlying theme in all these meetings is the centrality and importance of the NATO alliance for the United States, our allies, and regional and international security. At no point since the end of the Cold War has NATO been more relevant than it is today. We see this renewed relevance above all through the lens of Russian aggression. The Russian Government has demonstrated its ability to threaten, coerce, undermine, and even invade its neighbors. It’s a destabilizing factor in Ukraine, Georgia, and Syria.

At the ministerial, we will underscore how important it is for all allies to take this threat seriously, to honor their commitment from the Wales Summit to spend 2 percent of GDP and devote 20 percent of defense budgets to major equipment by 2024. Six countries in NATO currently do so, nine have submitted credible plans for doing so, and it’s time for the other 13 members of the alliance to step up, and especially Germany, NATO’s largest and wealthiest European member-state of NATO.

At the ministerial, we will also work with allies to solidify new steps that will be announced at the summit for strengthening deterrence and defense, including through enhanced decision making, readiness, and military mobility. And we will coordinate a joint approach to upping NATO’s game on counterterrorism, including by strengthening engagement with southern partners in the Middle East and North Africa, contributing troops to NATO missions, and projecting stability in the European neighborhood.

And finally, we will reiterate U.S. support for NATO’s open-door policy in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

This is a very important ministerial, especially coming in the wake of the Skripal attack and the Syria strikes. I want to underscore again the importance of NATO and Article V to the United States.

Welcome your questions.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll now take our first question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And ladies and gentlemen, if you do wish to ask a question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating you’ve been placed in queue. You may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the pound key.

STAFF: Here’s a one-pager of questions.

OPERATOR: And if you’re ready, our first question then is going to come from the line of Matt Lee from AP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi. [Senior State Department Official], thanks for this. I’m wondering, the President’s public comments seem to continually misstate or offer � present a misunderstanding of the 2 percent goal that was set in Wales. And I’m wondering, given his comments and his continual talk about how the allies need to contribute more to NATO rather than boost their own defense spending, does the rest of the administration understand that? And is the rest of the administration going to be satisfied if all NATO members do the 2 percent, or are you still going to be looking for more? Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Matt, it’s great to hear your voice. Thanks for the question. Listen, I mean, at the Wales Summit, all of the allies agreed to a very specific formula of 2 percent, 20 percent, 2024. And after the Brussels leaders meeting, all of the leaders of the NATO alliance publicly committed to submitting plans for how they’re going to reach those objectives by 2024. I think the President has been clear and consistent in calling on our allies to bear their fair share of security for the NATO alliance. NATO as an institution and how it’s funded internally as an administrative and technical matter � I think everyone, including our allies in Europe, know exactly what the President is talking about. Thanks.

MODERATOR: Right, thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from the line of David Clark from AFP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Oh, hi. Thanks very much. The only country you cited by name as needing to pay more is Germany. Obviously, Angela Merkel is going to be � or spend more, not pay more � is going to be in town this week. Is this going to be an important part of the discussion between the President and Angela Merkel?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, David, for the question. I expect that it will be a part of those conversations. The President and Chancellor Merkel have discussed this matter in the past. I think another � a number of other NATO allies raise this matter on a regular basis with our friends in Berlin. I just came back from Berlin. I think there is an awareness in Germany of the need to do more, and I would expect it come up in the meetings this week.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from the line of Dmitry Kirsanov from TASS. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello? Can you hear me?

MODERATOR: Yeah, we can hear you.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. What I wanted to ask you is unrelated to the NATO conference. I wanted to ask if Secretary Shannon and Minister Ryabkov are to meet anytime soon. The Russians signaled their willingness and desire to hold this meeting I think earlier today.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Dmitry, thanks for the question. We’re following this closely, but we don’t have anything to announce on that right now.

MODERATOR: We’ll take the next question now, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from the line of Carol Morello from The Washington Post. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this. Do you expect there to be much discussion in Brussels about possibly more sanctions against Russia from Europe, and do you sense that everybody is pretty much on the same page for more sanctions? Or is � where would there be some division, if there is any? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Carol, thanks for that question. As I think you probably know, we are in constant contact, very close contact with our major allies in Europe on the issue of sanctions broadly. We do a lot to coordinate with them, make sure we’re in the same place and space and time as much as possible. The ministerial agenda � that portion of it that is devoted to Russia is overwhelmingly about NATO-specific deterrents and defense measures that we’ll be formulating and fine-tuning in the lead-up to the summit. I think that’s what the major focal point of the conversation will be about. I am assuming that the broader context of the discussions will be about Russian aggression in all of its forms and coordinating in every way possible to meet that threat.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. We’ll go to the next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from the line of Maren Hennemuth from the German press. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. I was wondering if you could evaluate a little bit more on Germany. You said there is an awareness in Berlin, but they’re not coming closer to the 2 percent goal. Are there any plans to name and shame them more? What is your strategy?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Maren, thank you so much for that question. We work really closely with our friends in Berlin. This has been a longstanding point of discussion. The German Government right now spends � the numbers that I have are 1.24 percent on defense and has plans to reach 1.25 percent by 2021, but doesn’t have details beyond 2021. In all of our conversations with them, we applaud the progress that Germany has made, and German taxpayers have been willing to support increased defense spending. But I think our German colleagues also understand that we all committed to something very specific at Wales and that the United States and the rest of the alliance really do look to Germany as a leader. As the largest and wealthiest European member-state, the example that Germany sets is a very powerful one, and the practical impact that it would have in strengthening European security if it fully lived up to its stated public commitments would be hard to overstate.

MODERATOR: All right, thank you very much. We’ll go to our next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from the line of Kevin Princic from the Yomiuri Shimbun. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you so much for taking this call. I was wondering that, if Director Pompeo happens to be confirmed before this meeting happens, would he be able to possibly take over the trip or at least go on the trip with Acting Secretary Sullivan?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Kevin, thank you for the question. We don’t want to get ahead of the process here and speculate. I would just say if this gets through the Senate, we will accommodate accordingly. At this point, the plan is for Acting Secretary Sullivan to represent the United States. The issues on the docket remain the same, and our commitment to NATO is deep and not affected by any of these developments.

MODERATOR: All right, thank you. We’ll take now our last question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And our last question comes from Lesley Wroughton from Reuters. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. I was wondering if given that � well, let me � I was wondering if Syria was going to come up in any way given Russia and Turkey’s involvement.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Lesley, thank you so much for that question. There is a session in the afternoon of the ministerial that is devoted to projecting stability in the south. Really what we’re going to be doing is working with all of our allies to calibrate and fine tune plans for the role that NATO will play in the southern frontier of Europe in the days ahead with a particular emphasis on counterterrorism, building up our partnerships, having a stronger deterrence and defense posture there, but also just projecting stability more broadly.

Syria will not be a central focal point of those discussions, but I think the context both strategically and in humanitarian terms of what’s happening in Syria will inevitably be present in the context of those discussions.

MODERATOR: So thanks, everyone, for joining us today. And thanks very much to [Senior State Department Official]. The embargo on this call is now lifted. So enjoy the rest of your afternoon. Thank you.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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