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U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

A Look Back on the Obama Administration's Foreign Policy Record

Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications
Washington, DC
January 17, 2017


MODERATOR: Good afternoon and welcome back to the Washington Foreign Press Center, and a warm welcome to those who are in New York joining us. My name is Orna Blum. I’m Director of the Foreign Press Centers, and I’m pleased to welcome you to a special briefing today. We’re pleased to welcome Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes who will be briefing today on the Obama Administration’s foreign policy record. A kind reminder before we begin that when you ask questions, please state your name and outlet for the record.

And with that, Mr. Rhodes.

MR RHODES: Great, thanks. Well, I really just wanted to come one last time and take your questions, and also just thank everybody from the foreign press. I mean, we’ve tried over the last eight years in this kind of fractured media environment to make sure that we’re providing access to the foreign press as best we can, and have always enjoyed working with you as I know the NSC staff has, and figured many of you will be wrapping up our Administration and looking forward to the next one.

So I’m happy to take your questions on anything that’s on your mind. So why don’t we open it up? Yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you very much. Silvia Ayuso from El Pais newspaper. My question is on Cuba. You just came back from a trip with Cuba, and Cuba – the positions with – and the – the wet foot policy is one of the last positions of President Obama.

So my question is first in the transition work now with the new administration, how is the Cuba talks going on? I mean, what’s the policy? What’s your take and what have recommended, one? And second, there’s a lot – a lot of requests from the Cuban society, Cuban church, et cetera to make an exception for those Cubans that were surprised by the announcement in the middle – people who sold everything, who were already somewhere between Cuba and the U.S.


QUESTION: And they are now stranded and they don’t know where to go. Is their Administration willing to take a look at that and make, eventually, a provision on those people?

MR RHODES: Well, on your second question, we looked hard at this issue. The problem that we identified is that in making the change, the only way to signal that it was in force immediately and to avoid a potentially disruptive and dangerous flow of migrants through our borders, was to make the change effective immediately. And it would – we looked at the issue, and it would have been basically impossible to determine precisely who was in a population of people who were in Central America, how you could distinguish that from other Cubans who had been out of the country in other places. There was just no orderly way to do that. And our fear was that in indicating that there was an exception for some population that we couldn’t identify, that we would have a migratory crisis, because people would seek to try to present themselves at the border as being in that population.

So again, we share the concerns, but there were potentially dangerous implications for us to suggest that a sizeable number of Cubans who are already outside of Cuba would be able to be paroled into the country without knowing exactly how we could identify what that population was.

We do, however, want to work with the Central American Governments, as well as the Cuban Government to try to determine if we can provide some humanitarian assistance in this regard. And so that’s something that we’ve looked at. We have a sizeable assistance package already to Central America, and then I also know that there’s private interests in providing some support to Cubans who have, in some cases, sold significant amounts of their possessions to be there. So we’re trying to address it as a humanitarian issue, but as an immigration issue it just proved too difficult to be able to isolate and know for certain that a certain population could get an exception to the change without causing confusion and potentially a dangerous rush of migrants.

On the first question, we’ve – as we have on other issues – briefed the incoming administration about our Cuba policy. We provided them with an up – a notification ahead of time about the wet foot, dry foot change. They did not express any opposition to that change. More broadly, I can’t say for certain what the incoming team’s approach is going to be. There’s been a diversity of views expressed by both the president-elect and members his team. I think the point that we’ve made to them is that their focus on economic and commercial opportunities for the United States in our foreign policy should correspond with what we’re trying to do in opening up more space for American businesses and American travel to Cuba so that there’s potential benefits that are consistent with their expressed view of foreign policy priority of promoting American jobs and American businesses, that there are very tangible benefits in terms of the cooperation we have bilaterally with the Cubans. We just recently, as I was down there, signed a MOU on counterterrorism, counternarcotics, countertrafficking. So the focus on security that they’re bringing to bear I think would benefit from working with the Cubans.

And lastly, that the Cuba policy cannot be seen in isolation from our policy in Latin America, in that we have removed a very significant irritant between the United States and the countries of our hemisphere. And if we were to roll back the Cuba policy, I think that would have repercussions not just in Cuba, but it would significantly set back our position and our ability to cooperate with countries across the hemisphere. So that would – that has been, I think, the case we’ve made publicly and expressed to different officials.

Insofar as there are concerns about the human rights situation in Cuba, we share those concerns. And our belief continues to be that we’re better positioned to address those with an embassy, with relationships with the Cuban Government, and that, frankly, the progress that’s been made among the development of a private sector in Cuba, and the incremental advances of internet access, and the interconnectivity between Cubans and the rest of the world, that benefits the Cuban people as well. So they – that the – ultimately, the empowerment of the Cuban people is best served by continuing this policy. They can choose to emphasize different things than we did, but my hope and expectation is that it’s sufficiently in America’s interest that they continue, at least, important elements of what we’re doing and recognize the cost of seeking to turn back other elements.


QUESTION: Thank you. This is Eleni Argyri, Greek Public TV. Almost since the President took office, Greece is in the midst of recession. So now, looking back, does the President feel that he did – throughout his Presidency – he did enough to help Greece? And I’m asking that, because the situation remains almost the same after seven years. Thank you.

MR RHODES: Well, I think we do feel good that we were an advocate for Greece. We were often at odds with some of our key European partners in counseling an approach that was less punitive and put more of an emphasis on growth. There are times at which we felt that that should have been more the approach that was taken. Ultimately, it was not our decision to make. These were principally negotiations that had to take place between Greece and its EU partners, so we were essentially a supporting actor in those discussions.

But I do think that we consistently made the point that for Greece and for other European economies, and particularly in southern Europe, that were suffering, we consistently advocated for an approach that allowed for more space for growth and that limited the pain that accompanied austerity. That’s not always the approach that was taken, but I do think Greece still has a chance to pursue a recovery. When the President was there, he and Prime Minister Tsipras talked about some of the efforts that are being taken to promote greater innovation and entrepreneurship in the economy, things that could yield more job creation for young people. Ultimately, that’s going to have to be the path for Greece, but we’d like to see a resolution over time to the issues between Greece and the EU that allows for the economy to grow.

So I think we feel like we were consistently an advocate for Greece, that we did avoid a Eurozone crisis, but we recognize that people in Greece have sacrificed greatly and we’re hopeful that going forward that they’ll be able to get back onto a pathway to growth.


QUESTION: Thank you. If I may briefly follow up on Greece. Do you feel – Katerina Sokou with Greek daily Kathimerini. Do you feel that the Grexit danger is – the exit from Eurozone is now gone for good? Do you feel that you contributed through your inter – your advice and counseling to the Europeans for Greece to stay in the Eurozone? Thank you.

MR RHODES: We do. I mean, with the time that we had, there were times when that looked very likely. And when I look back to 2011 and 2012, there was a great deal of uncertainty as to whether or not Greece would be able to stay in the Eurozone and whether or not the entire Eurozone would go into some type of broader crisis along the lines of what we saw in the financial crisis.

What I think we were able to do, working with the other European countries, is to take enough action to avert the worst outcomes so that, at each juncture, enough was done to keep things from going off the rails, and to try to maintain some stability in the Eurozone. But again, I don’t think enough was done to promote the type of growth that we have encouraged Europe to pursue.

So in that regard, I do think just the fact that Greece still has a future within the Eurozone is positive and wasn’t in any way preordained back in 2011, 2012. I think the Greek people at different junctures have shown a lot of courage in taking very tough decisions and doing very hard things. And frankly, they deserve probably more credit than they get. I think there’s – unfair to generalize that Greece wasn’t stepping up to the plate given the hardships that people had to take on. And again, my hope is that ultimately that is rewarded with a return to growth, and people will be able to look back at this chapter and say as dark as it was, the worst outcomes were avoided and Greece was able to essentially reorient and rebuild an economy that could deliver greater job creation and growth for the Greek people.


QUESTION: Namo Abdullah with Rudaw. It’s a news agency in Iraqi Kurdistan. I have a two-part question. More than two years ago, President Barack Obama outlined his policy or strategy to, quote/unquote, “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS.” I want to get your assessment of how degraded ISIS is now as President Obama is leaving office – not just geographically. I know they have – it’s been pushed back of (inaudible) areas. But also, do you have a way to gauge the degree of threat ISIS poses to the West now? Has that threat been degraded?

And the second part of the question: How important was the role played by the Kurdish forces in both Iraq and Syria against the ISIS?

MR RHODES: So I think ISIL has been degraded substantially in a number of ways. First, they have lost significant amounts of territory, nearly half of the territory they controlled in Iraq and Syria. And that includes major population centers. When you look in – at Iraq and Ramadi and Sinjar and Tikrit and Hit, they’ve been steadily rolled back and are now being squeezed in Mosul, the remaining major population center. And similarly in Syria, when you look at where they were from the time that they were seeking to overrun Kobani, they’ve now lost that entire border region and are pushed back into Raqqa, where we’re beginning to squeeze them.

More broadly, though, that’s had effects in other ways. A lot of the magnet for ISIL recruitment was the sense that they were on the move and that they were establishing a caliphate. I think that that myth has been blown up, that there’s no longer this triumphalism, and that it’s clear that ultimately they’re going to lose the territory they hold and they’re going to be what they are, which is a terrorist organization, not a state.

And we’ve seen, both because of that dynamic and because of cooperation on foreign fighter flows and efforts to delegitimize and expose the ISIL narrative with many partners around the world, we’ve seen a significant decrease in the flow of foreign fighters. And that’s the clearest indicator that you have that the allure is not what it was two or three years ago, that there are just a lot less people who are traveling to Iraq and Syria. And that, I think, speaks to a degradation of ISIL. They’ve also lost a significant amount of their financing, which was essential to their efforts to try to establish governance in places.

And look, part of this was their own – their own bankrupt and nihilistic ideology. They could not govern the places that they were in. They were exposed as the terrorists and thugs that they are when they sought to exert control over local populations who then rejected them. So I think there’s a significant amount of progress. At the same time, the threat persists in part because as they’ve lost territory and as they are no longer able to really compete in a military conflict on the ground with the coalition air power and the partners who we have fighting ISIL on the ground, they’re resorting to being a terrorist organization that seeks to garner attention and prestige not from governing but from carrying out attacks, and particularly in Europe.

So I think that that’s the nature of the threat going forward to the West is people who might have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight are now seeking to carry out these attacks that we’ve seen in far too many European countries and other places around the world. And that – that becomes a more traditional intelligence and law enforcement challenge, and it also necessitates continued efforts to work with Muslim-majority countries around the world to push back against the ideology of ISIL.

In that effort, the Kurdish forces were absolutely indispensable. And in the darkest days and when we first intervened and were seeking to organize a mix of security forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq really began the first pushback against ISIL, to hold that line when we intervened to save the Yezidis in Sinjar, to obviously protect Erbil, and then to start to push back.

But the other important thing in Iraq that happened is they worked well with Iraqi Security Forces. And this whole campaign in Iraq only works when there’s a unified ability to coordinate between Baghdad and Erbil, between Iraqi Security Forces working with Kurdish forces, working with, in some cases, Sunni tribes, the – and some of the – and then being careful about the role that certain militias play in that effort.

And so it’s been a complex array of actors working together on the ground to push back against ISIL, and I think the Kurds have proven to be both effective fighters, but also they’ve worked in effective coordination with the government under Prime Minister Abadi in Baghdad in this campaign. And that – part of the sea change there was when Prime Minister Abadi came in to replace Prime Minister Maliki, who had, I think, had his relations soured completely with the Sunni community and significantly with the Kurdish community inside of Iraq.

In Syria, similarly, the initial gains in Kobani, which I think gave a bit of a shot in the arm to people who were pushing back against ISIL in Syria – we could not have done that without cooperation with Kurdish forces. But as in Iraq, what’s also been important is those Kurdish forces have worked with Arab forces increasingly, particularly as we got into parts of Syria that are majority Arab instead of Kurd. And they’ve been careful to not, for instance, hold areas in which there’s an Arab majority, and to work with us and other Arab partners to determine the most effective way to balance all the various equities in northern Syria, with Turkey as an ally of the United States and with the need to have a multi-sectarian coalition.

So it’s been indispensable to have Kurdish partners in this fight, but part of the reason why that’s been effective is that they’ve always worked across lines of sect and community in ways that allow the campaign to continue to move forward.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR RHODES: Yeah, we’ll take a question from New York.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR RHODES: Your mike’s not on. Well, sorry, you guys don’t have your mike on in New York. Should we come back? All right, we’ll come back to you. We’ll seek to address the difficulty and we’ll come back in a few minutes.

Yeah, here.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Rhodes. Bingru Wang with Hong Kong Phoenix TV. Thank you for hosting this briefing. Vice President Biden just had a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi. I wonder if you could shed some lights. What’s the final message from this Administration? And what’s advice you could give the next administration in terms of engaging your Chinese counterparts?

And secondly, as President-elect Trump firmly said he is going to withdraw from TPP, so realistically, what’s the future of the Asian rebalance strategy?

MR RHODES: Well, number one, I think that the U.S.-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world. It’s indispensable to addressing just about any issue that we care about. And I think we’re remarkably proud of what we’ve accomplished with the Chinese. Most of our signature foreign policy initiatives and achievements were built in part on U.S.-Chinese cooperation. There is no Paris climate agreement without the U.S. and China leading that effort with the agreement we reached in Beijing. There’s no Iran deal without Chinese cooperation on sanctions and then diplomacy with Iran. There’s no ability to deal with the global economic crisis and return the global economy to a pathway to growth without the U.S. and China cooperating. We expanded our cooperation on areas like health and development, where we want China to play a bigger role.

So across a host of issues, I think because of the regular consultation and the relationships that we developed, we got a tremendous amount of things done with China. We have always a balance sheet where there are areas of tension, though. I think for us the South China Sea has grown as an area of tension. I think it’s an area that should concern us going forward, because I think neither the U.S., China, or our Southeast Asian partners have any interest in seeing that get on a pathway towards conflicts and escalation. So I think it’s going to take a lot of effort to try to resolve those issues peacefully. Cyber is another area where what we’ve at least been able to do is build greater mechanisms for dialogue and exchange on the issue.

But our advice would be to see that this relationship is essential to anything you want to get done, whether it relates to the global economy or global issues like climate change, the security situation in the Asia Pacific. If this relationship is functioning well, everything is easier. If it’s not, everything is harder. And that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be firm on certain issues, and the South China Sea is one. And any time we see China beginning to press up against international norms, like peaceful resolution of disputes under international law, we’ve been very clear about that. But I think there’s just much more to be gained from pursuing cooperation when we can with China rather than seeing it as an adversary. I think that’d be very dangerous for every – for the whole world, frankly.

In terms of – your other question was the TPP. I think that’s an enormous mistake. The United States is only shooting itself in the foot if we walk away from TPP. Frankly, it benefits China because it puts them in a stronger position to shape the future of trade and commercial relations in the Asia Pacific. It removes us from the table. So economically and strategically I think it’s an enormous error. And it also kind of willfully ignores the fact that TPP addresses a lot of the very concerns that have been raised about trade agreements. It prioritizes labor and environmental standards. It addresses some of the issues of dispute resolution that were missing in NAFTA. So I think it’s a wrong answer to some of the concerns that have been raised about trade over the last decade. It’s kind of an interesting shift – a lot of things are interesting in the United States right now – that a very progressive, probably the most progressive Democratic president in decades is the advocate for trade. But that’s precisely because we believe that the agreement has progressive values built into it.

What I think will happen – I think that the countries will cut deals without us. And frankly, maybe the TPP countries will just find a way to move forward with TPP without the United States. And my hope would be that at some point there’s a return to that.

I don’t think that it’s the sum total of the Asia rebalance. It’s a – it was a key part of it, but I think we elevated the profile of the Asia Pacific in our foreign policy. We resourced our defense budget around the Asia Pacific as a priority. We really invested in relationships in Southeast Asia that I think have been transformed, both with ASEAN as a collective, but the U.S.-Vietnam relationship is now one of the fastest-growing partnerships we have in the world. Very substantive changes to it, like removing the prohibition on lethal weapons sales, increased commercial and people-to-people ties. The opening to Myanmar has completely transformed our relationship with that country.

So I think the Asia rebalance manifests itself in a lot of ways that go beyond TPP. It would have been nice to have that because it kind of captured exactly what our approach is, which is rules-based agreements that promote prosperity and stability in the region, ensure that the United States has a seat at the table. I would hope that the incoming administration would continue the practice of participating in forums like the East Asia Summit and APEC at a head-of-state level. I think it’s hard to underestimate* how important that is, because it’s a forcing mechanism. It allows us to develop agendas with these countries, both multilaterally and bilaterally. So that too will be a key indicator to watch: Do they sustain that type of high-level engagement, not just with China and Japan and the Republic of Korea and Australia and our allies, but also with the ASEAN countries?

Should we try New York again, or – you want to see if your guy’s mike works? No?

MODERATOR: No. (Inaudible.)

MR RHODES: All right. So – sorry, sorry. I’m – I’ll stay here. Yeah.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. Lucia Leal with EFE News. I wanted to ask you first on Guantanamo. Do you think we can expect further action by President Obama on that before he leaves office? And secondly, on Cuba, I wanted if – to see if you could clarify what you meant when you said that you wanted to work with governments in the region to determine if you can provide some humanitarian assistance to the Cubans who were almost there when the “wet foot, dry foot” change took place. Do you mean some sort of clemency or maybe expedited applications for asylum?

MR RHODES: No. No, so to be very clear, because this is an important question, I do not mean in the immigration procedures, because I think, again, it is just too difficult to carve out an exception and to know what that population is without – and being able to verify that – without prompting a migratory crisis, potentially, because different people who may be coming from different places seek to take advantage of that. I meant more just as in any migration situation, there are issues around how people are – what conditions they’re in, where they are – and some people are in kind of temporary circumstances in Central America – how they are resettled.

And so what we can do on a humanitarian basis, not an immigration basis, to address that is something that we’ll be looking at going forward. And like I said, we have assistance relationships with a lot of these countries, including on immigration issues. My hope is that we’re able to alleviate the humanitarian issue, even as we recognize that we’re not going to be able to grandfather in a population under the “wet foot, dry foot” change.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR RHODES: Oh, yeah. Oh, Guantanamo. Look, we’ll – we’re trying to reduce the population as much as we can through the last moment we’re in office. So I’d expect that to continue. And our goal is to leave – we’re doing everything we can to close it. Congress has restrictions on us that have made that impossible to do. But we’re going to keep at this as long as we’re here. And the population is now down to I think under 50 people.

Part of what we’re demonstrating is the absurdity of spending millions and millions and millions of dollars to keep 40 or so people in a prison, where they’re not being tried and convicted, just to make a point. I mean, there’s really no – there’s no policy reason to have a prison in Cuba that holds 40 people. That doesn’t make any sense. We’ve got plenty of facilities that can hold people.

We’ve tried terrorists who are just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than a lot of the people at Guantanamo, and they’re serving life sentences in our prisons right now. Every one that we detain – the Boston Marathon bomber, the Times Square bomber; Ahmed Warsame (ph), an al-Shabaab commander; Abu Khattala, the alleged mastermind of the Benghazi attacks – these people are in our prisons. So there’s just not an argument for why it makes sense to have a prison in Cuba that we’re spending tens of millions of dollars to operate to hold 40 people, even though it isolates us internationally and has been used time and again in terrorist recruitment material, propaganda material.

Moreover, if we started to add to the population of Guantanamo, I think it would significantly endanger our counterterrorism cooperation. Countries – one of the reason why countries have worked closely with us to extradite terrorists is because they know where they’re going; they’re going into our justice system. I think it would be a lot more difficult for European countries or Arab countries to hand over terrorist suspects who then get sent to Guantanamo. That’s a practical reality of governing. You can sit and armchair quarterback us and stack up the restrictions in Congress, but if you have to try to work with other countries around the world to detain and extradite terrorists to the United States, the last thing that you want to do is make it impossible for those countries to do that. And so these are the types of issues that I think will be confronted if there’s any effort to add to the population there.


QUESTION: Reporter with Shenzhen Media Group. So last Friday, Mr. Trump said in an interview that the “one China” policy is negotiable. And – but a few of his key nominations, including Mr. Rex Tillerson and James Mattis, said that they have seen no plans to alter the “one China” policy. So I just wonder, has the current Administration talked to or advised Mr. Trump on the issue and what was his response? And how do you see the U.S. strategies to the Taiwan issue going under the incoming administration? Thank you.

MR RHODES: Well, I mean, it’s non-negotiable in the sense that our entire relationship with China is founded upon the “one China” policy. I mean, that was a basis for the Shanghai Communique and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. It’s been negotiated. I guess you could reopen it, but this is an agreement we reached with the biggest country in the world, and it’s the framework under which we do everything. So that’s the first point I’d make.

The second point I’d make is that we have maintained a productive relationship with Taiwan within the context of a “one China” policy. And the people of Taiwan continue to benefit from their political system and very advanced economy, even within that context.

The third point I’d make is that this is not something – I mean, China is not going to move on this. So I don’t – if there’s one thing that you learn in dealing with China is that when they’re dealing with what they consider to be China, they treat – that’s a different – they put that in a different bucket of issues than other potential irritants. So I – China’s not going to negotiate anything. So I’m not sure what is accomplished by saying that – by pursuing an approach where you seek to reopen.

And finally, it’s dangerous. I mean, the risk of escalation in the Taiwan Strait is just a flashpoint that the world does not need right now, and the United States certainly doesn’t. So I would hope that – again, that the approach that’s taken is one that sees the value of a constructive relationship with China.

And look, they clearly want to take a tougher line on some things, and they’ll do what they want to do. And I think there’s some valid – I think the – we’ve warned the Chinese for years that some of the support for the relationship was eroding in our business community and among our public because of perceived unfair trade practices. And that manifested itself in cyber issues and tariffs and state-owned enterprise issues. So I do think that there’s some expression being given by the new administration to a very real sense in this country that is this trade relationship – is this fair right now. And so I’m not suggesting that that doesn’t make sense and that he might have some fresh thinking on how to take a firmer line on some of the areas where we have also had differences. But I think getting into the space of something like Taiwan just risks destabilizing that relationship without any potential benefit that I can foresee.


QUESTION: Thank you. Marcelo Ninio from Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazilian newspaper. The U.S.-Brazil relations have had some bumpy moments during Obama Administration, especially after the disclosure of NSA surveillance over the former Brazilian president. Some say that this relationship never fully recovered. Looking back, how do you think the Administration could have managed better this crisis to put the relations with the biggest economy in Latin America back on track?

And since you mentioned in your Cuba answer the Latin American policy, how did you see the Obama Administration saw Brazil? What part did Brazil have in this Latin American policy? Thank you.

MR RHODES: Well, on your first question, I think one of – we never really hit the timing right with Brazil. Because there’s so much natural benefit to cooperation. When we came in, we really wanted to prioritize this. I think one of the first conversations the President had was with Lula. And I think the President feels a lot of affinity for Brazil. It’s a relationship with unrealized potential in terms of what we could do together commercially, economically, and also in the region. And we were beginning to build, I think, a very broad and deep set of initiatives to cooperate around when the President visited, and that was beginning to bear fruit. You were seeing increased commercial activity, interesting initiatives around energy cooperation, working with Brazil to try to address development challenges in other countries, bringing them into initiatives like the Open Government Partnership, peace-keeping cooperation, which is an issue we’ve highlighted in the international system.

So we made good progress, then the disclosure – there’s no country in the world where our relationship suffered more because of the disclosures than Brazil. There’s just no question about that. And I – my own views, I don’t think that was necessary. I think it took on a life of it – of its own in Brazil that nothing we said seemed to matter for a period of time. And that may have also been because of – information was disclosed clearly to have an effect on our relations with particular countries, and Brazil and Germany were clearly almost kind of targets for trying to create friction in the relationship. And so it put – to be sympathetic to Dilma – it put the Brazilian Government in a very difficult position, because there was just this drip, drip, drip, drip of information that was intended to push the most provocative buttons.

And we did make changes in our surveillance policies and we briefed Brazil on those. And I think as they began to understand that we were serious about addressing some of the concerns, the relationship opened back up. They felt heard in their objections to what they were learning about in the disclosures, and we also, frankly, could explain to them how our intelligence surveillance programs work. One of the – benefit is probably too strong of a word, but one of the outcomes of those disclosures is, frankly, it forced us to have conversations with countries that we hadn’t had before about, look, here’s how we do things and here’s why we do them this way, and here are the safeguards we’re putting in place. And so ultimately, that did allow us to begin to rebuild the relationship. And Dilma had a good visit here and we were able to essentially reinvigorate a lot of the efforts that we were pursuing on commercial ties and economic ties and in some defense areas and on some of these global issues I talked about.

Brazil also is indispensable to the climate change agreement, so as with some other countries, I think the biggest thing we did with Brazil, frankly, was the Paris Agreement, because their contribution was indispensable. But then, Brazil had its own political crisis, and so that – that kind of consumed just when the relationship was, I think, beginning to gain altitude again – not because of any problems between us, but mainly just because there was an inward focus. I think that slowed down some of this progress. So I think we have a good record when we were cooperating of showing that that’s good for the region and for both of our countries, but I think that there’s a higher ceiling of potential for what the U.S. and Brazil can do together.

On Cuba, I think Brazil is – Brazil has been able to occupy a space that a number of countries have, but as a big country in particular in the region, where they had good relations with Cuba and relations with us, so that what – they weren’t on kind of one side of a fight. They weren’t – they were representing a view that had a lot of credibility because of their size and influence in the hemisphere and it wasn’t from a position of pure ideology; it was a practical point that this policy is outdated, that it – you’re making it harder for all of us to work together with you, that we can’t continue to come to summits like the Summit of the Americas and exclude Cuba. That has an impact, especially when we’re hearing it from everybody, and so I think that weighed on the President. I mean, he wanted to do something on Cuba, but when you’re also hearing about it from Brazil and – well, I won’t start naming countries, because I’d have to name all of them – you realize, what is the point of this? We’re – it’s not working in Cuba and it’s just making it impossible for me to go anywhere in this hemisphere without Cuba being at the top of the agenda. And so I think that – that did help incentivize us to take the risk of doing the Cuba opening. And I think, again, it also points to the risks of not continuing.


QUESTION: Do you see – sorry – do you see the accession to power of President Trump as the beginning of the end of the world – the – not the world, but the liberal order of the world and liberal democracy? (Laughter.) Obviously, I ask because he has said things about NATO and the E.U. – I don’t even have to repeat them, because they’re so outrageous – that makes, I think, everyone in this country who are concerned about the transatlantic alliance extremely concerned and – for the future of that alliance. And in particular, it is not only strange, but it’s really upsetting that – I’m – I come from Denmark. My name is Martin Burcharth; I’m from a newspaper there called Information – that Danish soldiers have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan – we have actually taken more casualties per capita than United States. To hear that NATO is not doing anything to combat terrorism – that is not a very helpful comment. So I wonder, what would you suggest to Trump if you had him in the room now? (Laughter.)

MR RHODES: Let me just – so I don’t – look, the President has given his defense of the liberal international order repeatedly. I think that the UN speech he gave this year, I think, is the best distillation of it.

I’d say a couple things. Just on NATO: Your point is very important here. When we came into office in 2009, we had to surge forces in Afghanistan. And we had to do that because, frankly, the plotting that we saw in Afghanistan and Pakistan was directed at Europe, but a lot of it was directed at us. And we had to go around and ask NATO allies to either sustain or increase their contributions to a war that their publics had totally soured on. That was hard, and just about everybody stepped up with no political upside to it. I mean, it’s not like any leader got a boost from continuing their ISAF contribution.

That’s what an alliance is, though. We – I used to see the casualty notices every day for ISAF that would include people from any number of NATO countries and other allies, and you think when you see that that – and small countries – these are enormous losses in a conflict that seems pretty distant from the politics and life in those countries. So NATO allies have made enormous sacrifices in defense of the United States. Yes, in defense of their security as well. I mean, terrorists did attack European cities like London and Madrid in the pre-ISIL threat picture, but the fact that that sacrifice continued so long after the public opinion had shifted on the war, after the war in Iraq that had been so divisive – yes, we’ve had differences about defense budgets, but not about the value of this alliance and not about the willingness to sacrifice your most precious resource, your people, for a mission that has been – was largely driven by the United States. So I think we should never disrespect the loss of life that NATO allies have undertaken on our behalf. And by the way, that’s not in a counter-Russian effort. Blood was spilled by NATO to fight terrorism for the last 15 years. That’s what – that’s what an alliance is. So that’s the first thing I’d say.

The second thing is that America gets a lot out of these alliances, and I think that there’s a lack of appreciation in this country for just how much we benefit from these alliances. I think there’s a presumption that it’s costly and we have to put troops in these places. First of all, just from a very basic level, our military has a global network of allies and partners that allow us to do everything that we do. In Japan, a country with a very strong sense of sovereignty, the fact that (glitch) those troops – that’s for our benefit as well as theirs. That goes both ways. The fact that Germany hosts – that is the hub of our – how we move wounded warriors out of Iraq and save their lives. That’s how we move our special forces around to key theaters. And that – and the same can be said of any country that hosts an American military installation. That is to our benefit as well as to the benefit of countries that are hosting us. Try doing anything that the U.S. military does without that. It’d be impossible. We depend – our doctrine depends – on having allies and having forward-deployed bases, and I think that has to be a part of the conversation in ways it hasn’t been.

And so that – again, that doesn’t even get into the liberal international order, which I think we spend a lot of time speaking about. Basically, to distill it down into a paragraph, I mean, President Obama’s whole view of how the world should operate is premised on a liberal international order in which rules and institutions incentivize nations to resolve their differences peacefully, to promote prosperity, to cooperate in dealing with challenges that are global. And alliances are literally the core of that order. Without alliances, our voice in every international body is minimized, even though we’re the most powerful country in the world. And we would be doing great harm to ourselves to walk away from that.

But, all that said, I’m not entirely pessimistic, because the incentives are just overwhelming to pursue that approach. And I think, frankly, the costs of turning away from it will be pretty evident if that’s what happens. The pendulum has to swing back, in my judgment. And the one thing I’d say is he was sounding alarm bells about this in Brussels, in Hanover, giving speeches about Europe that you frankly don’t often hear about from European leaders. I think everybody needs to realize that these are things that we could lose and that they need to be spoken up for, that we can’t just kind of price in the fact that this liberal international order or transatlantic alliance will be there.

And so what I hope is there is now a more vigorous effort from political leaders and from citizens to stand up for these things in these countries, and that ultimately that’s going to be the thing that again causes this pendulum to swing back to an appreciation of what we gain from that type of cooperation. And there’s just too much common interest in that working for – I think for things to go off the rails in a way that is irredeemable. So hope springs eternal.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: Thanks so much.

QUESTION: Hey. Bryant Harris with the Yomiuri Shimbun, the Japanese newspaper. You kind of touched on this a little bit before, but just to get even more specific, at his confirmation hearing Rex Tillerson suggested blocking off access to Chinese-constructed islands in the South China Sea. I was wondering if you could assess the wisdom of that approach, and what would your advice be to the incoming administration about dealing with the South China Sea issue?

And then on Yemen, this Administration has repeatedly condemned, basically, Russian war crimes in Syria, but Saudi Arabia, which the U.S. is backing there, has also committed similar war crimes – bombing hospitals, schools. So, I guess, how do you justify the U.S. approach to Yemen and backing Saudi Arabia in contrast with what Russia is doing in Syria?

MR RHODES: So on the first question, I – we’ve not thought that military confrontation would be the right approach to the South China Sea. I do think that those comments reflect a growing concern, though, that China has been pushing the envelope in its actions, in its militarization of certain structures, in ways that are potentially destabilizing.

Our approach has been, and I think what we would encourage is, to focus a significant amount of time and attention to trying to form a regional approach. In other words, if the conflict is distilled to tests of strength between individual claimants – China and individual claimants, it’s going to have one ending. If ASEAN is able to form a collective position and stick behind it – and, frankly, we can support that effort by the type of network we’ve tried to build among our allies, where the Japanese are deepening their cooperation with Australia and with India and with individual ASEAN countries, that ultimately – that’s not to take on China, that’s to say that there is a large group of countries that have a shared interest in there being freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of dispute, and the conversation begins from a set of principles and that there – countries that are willing to stand behind that collectively. And that gives us a basis to have a more constructive engagement with China.

I – otherwise, the risk is – look, I mean, the risk is that if this is turned into a zero-sum competition over individual rocks, reefs, structures, I don’t think that benefits anybody; I think everybody loses, because ultimately, there’s so much investment in – you turn it into a nationalist issue and make it harder and harder for countries to back down from their positions. It has to be treated as an international issue, as difficult as that is. Exception would be – and it’s not the South China Sea, but we took the position we did on the Senkakus because we have a treaty alliance. That is a commitment of ours, because again, you have a treaty obligation.

On Yemen, the distinction we’d draw from Syria is that there – there’s a basis for what the Saudi-led coalition was seeking to achieve in that they were getting – basically, they’re getting missiles launched into their territory, they were having skirmishes across their border, there was an external threat that they were seeking to address. We have repeatedly been concerned by the way in which they approach the military campaign, particularly when we’ve seen more indiscriminate bombing. Nothing on the scale of Syria, but nonetheless, every innocent life lost in a military conflict is a tragedy. And when you have a lack of discretion in how you carry out your military operations, that raises our concerns, and that’s – so we’ve sought to try to calibrate how are we relating to that effort, and we’ve sought to prioritize a political track so that there’s a pathway to de-escalation.

I think that – and Secretary Kerry has been working on this up through now – at the end of the day, I think there has to be a way in which countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE can feel like they’re not going to have to just accept a growing threat on their borders and even hostile actions into their territory. There’s a way for them to address that and have some deterrent against that without the kind of open-ended military campaign that we’ve seen in Yemen. And the – we’ll see the approach that the new team takes, but I think focusing on the political track and – what we’ve tried to do, for instance, is focus on – we can deploy Patriots, we can help secure that border, and we can help support more targeted efforts. That’s the role that the United States should play and I think we have expressed concerns when it – the military efforts went far beyond that.


QUESTION: Thank you very much for today’s last briefing. I have – my name is Tatsuya Mizumoto from Jiji Press. I have a question about North Korea. During eight years, obviously, their nuclear program has been advanced. They have done three or four nuclear tests and then they launched a lot of missiles. Do you believe you have done the best job against North Korea and then do you have any advice to new administration how to – about how to deal with North Korea? Thank you.

MR RHODES: Yeah, when I look back on it, I don’t know what we could have done differently. I mean, they had a nuclear weapon when we – they had tested a nuclear weapon by the time we took office. I think that we have sought to take the responsible steps necessary to ensure that we can defend against that, and so I think the THAAD deployment, I think the work we’ve done to try to keep the cooperation trilaterally between us and the ROK and Japan on track, the other investments we’ve made in missile defense in Northeast Asia are the types of responsible things that we need to do to address at least how to contain this threat and defend ourselves.

The diplomatic opening really just never presented itself. No one has ever accused me of being reluctant to engage in diplomacy, but I – there just – it never – there was never a window that was open. There was just never a sense that the North Koreans were at all serious. And I think the Chinese have gotten more concerned about this and more serious about it. But I think it’s going to be a predominant challenge for the next team and it would have been in any case, no matter who won our election.

I do think there has to be some way to – and this is, frankly, why it’s good to have a constructive relation with China – there has to be some way to have a discussion with China that envisions where this is all going, that can lead to some more assertive action on their part. I think they’re worried about the uncertainties of destabilization on the Korean peninsula that might come from pressure that they apply, but the status quo is, frankly, more destabilizing I think than the alternative of them applying even greater pressure. We’ve gotten them, I think, to enforce much stronger sanctions and we’ll see how those – what those yield. And it may just be that that has to sink in to affect North Korea’s calculus.

The last thing I’d just say is I’ve always thought that there might be more thought in terms of how we are able to reach the North Korean people. And not just with the – this is not to criticize, so I just want to put a disclaimer – but the loudspeakers, leaflets, the – it’s not reaching a lot of people. And I do feel like that the information vacuum there is potentially greater than it needs to be, and there are some interesting efforts to just try to get some greater connectivity between North Koreans and the rest of the world, because that too I think ultimately – the only pressure that really matters is pressure from within in some cases, and there doesn’t seem to be much of that.

We have time for a couple more. Andrei. Andrei’s mad at me because I reneged on an interview with him. I had good excuses both times. One was that we were giving sanctions that day, and the other was the birth of my daughter. (Laughter.) So I apologize, Andrei, but --

QUESTION: The first day we were introducing – first, congratulations on your – on the birth of your daughter.

MR RHODES: Thank you.

QUESTION: And you were introducing the sanctions, the recent batch, on the day when Russia was mourning her ambassador in Turkey who had been lost to a terrorist attack. Why did you pick that day?

MR RHODES: For the sanction for --

QUESTION: For introducing the sanctions, new sanctions. Your own Dr. Wallander was at the Russian embassy that day expressing condolences.

MR RHODES: Was that the exact day? I --

QUESTION: That was on the one hand. And – no, it did not happen --

STAFF: (Inaudible) December 20th.

QUESTION: It did not happen on the day when he died --

MR RHODES: No – yeah.

QUESTION: -- but when she was at the embassy, when she came to the embassy to express condolences.

MR RHODES: I’m told that’s not true, that – yeah. Yeah, yeah.

STAFF: She was there on December 20th. We released sanctions on December 29th.

QUESTION: So anyways, needless to say, I’m – it’s not the way I remember it, but I’m bad with dates. I’m pretty sure it was the same day. But obviously, I’m very sad – not about the interview, but about what’s going on in our relations. And --

MR RHODES: Yours and mine, or the U.S. and Russia? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: No, no, no, U.S. and Russia. And then the question like you just answered, what would have been done differently --


QUESTION: -- but what’s the point now? There is almost nothing to ask at this point. In Russian, there is a saying that you swing your fists after the fight. This is what you are doing. Obviously, you swing the fists at Russia, but you aim the blows at Donald Trump. We understand that. It’s obvious; it’s awkward. To put it into a --

MR RHODES: You’re suggesting that expelling Russian intelligence agents is hitting Donald Trump?

QUESTION: And to put it in a – you undermine the legitimacy of the question by blowing out of all proportion and by providing no proof whatsoever about Russian interference in the political affairs of the United States. You undermine the legitimacy of your own new president. My question, to put it in a question form: Give me an example, a historic example, where a similar thing happened, where a new president was elected and he was systemically, deliberately --

MR RHODES: I work for that president. He was delegitimized from the first day that he was in office, in this country.

QUESTION: By whom? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Donald Trump.



MR RHODES: Look, let me – I won’t go down that road, because that’s too easy. Well, do you want to finish or --

QUESTION: No, no, no. Go on.

MR RHODES: So with respect to the actions that we took, there’s – look, I’ve worked on a lot of – around a lot of intelligence assessments. There is not any – there is no doubt – this is not a questionable case. It is plainly evident to all of our intelligence agencies based on all the different types of reporting that they have that Russia was behind the hacking of American political organizations, and that that information was provided to parties who were going to disclose those materials for a political purpose. It’s an insult to our intelligence to suggest that that didn’t happen right in front of our eyes.

The – look, this – but let me maybe take it more broadly. We have some European journalists here. This is happening all over Europe, and it’s not hard to see. I mean, we – I don’t know how many European leaders we’ve met with who said that something new has entered into their politics, that there is a systematic effort to disseminate information that is intended to provoke European disunity, that is intended to undermine more liberally oriented leaders, including those who’ve supported things like Ukraine sanctions. We hear it in Italy, in Germany, and the Germans have already gone public with what’s happening in their election. So --

QUESTION: But also on the surveillance that you acknowledged and on the regime change, there are scores of examples where Americans have been doing this and worse.

MR RHODES: But Andrei --

QUESTION: But – and this, what you are claiming, has – again, has no proof. Your intelligence says it happened, but your intelligence has been wrong so many times, including on Iraq, as we all know. (Inaudible.)

MR RHODES: Let me start at the beginning. This President had no hostility towards Russia. I remember him giving an interview to you, Andrei, in the White House. We came in and had --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR RHODES: -- to your news organization. We got a lot done with Dmitry Medvedev. We got the New START Treaty done. We got – we supported Russia’s entry in the WTO, even though there wasn’t really any political benefit in that for us. We thought that was fair. The repeal of Jackson-Vanik. We couldn’t have gotten an Iran deal without Russia, and I’ve repeatedly credited Russia with that. We – what is so frustrating about this whole conversation is we clearly had a preference to work with Russia. If anything, that is something our critics have seized on. And frankly, I still think that was the right thing to do, because when you have an opportunity of someone who’s willing to work with you, you take it. And that’s what we had in the first term with President Medvedev, and we got a lot done that I think benefited the United States and Russia.

We did not go in search of a conflict in Ukraine. We actually – we supported the agreement that was brokered in which Yanukovych would have stayed. He is the one who decided to leave. And we have a responsibility as a stakeholder in the international community that after that happens, when there’s an effort to annex the territory of a sovereign country, to respond and for there to be consequences. Absent that, the whole order collapses and we’re just living in the law of the jungle, and that ultimately is bad, I think, for everybody, including Russia.

In terms of our surveillance and intelligence efforts, look, we get it. Countries spy on each other. A bunch of countries do that. There is a difference, though, between regular efforts to understand what’s happening in another country and have that inform your policies and then disseminating information to interfere in the politics of other countries. And frankly, that – you’re asking us to suspend disbelief to suggest that Toria Nuland’s phone conversation gets intercepted and released is – and that fake news is created all across European countries that --

QUESTION: What was fake about it?

MR RHODES: You know how many – there have been plenty of reports about – that are intended to promote – seed doubt and division inside of Europe, to elevate the concerns about refugees, fake stories about what refugees are doing in Europe and crimes that they’re committing. There is direct funding and support for political parties with a – of a particular bent in European countries. This is all plain for people to see.

And I think that the problem here is we respect that Russia will have its own interests. The basic problem is we’re not operating even from a position of trying to establish any facts for how we address issues. A civilian airliner is shot down over Ukraine, and on the one hand we have professionals painstakingly recreating the entire airplane and doing a lengthy investigation to arrive at a fact-based conclusion as against just all types of different theories and information being put out by Russia about what happened. And that’s what plays out time and again and --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) given your own information.

MR RHODES: We – they rebuilt the entire plane that was blown out of the sky, Andrei. I mean, there are --

QUESTION: Your satellites were watching that area. You never released it.

MR RHODES: We did release the --


MR RHODES: We’ve released satellite imagery of all kinds of things in Ukraine. We’ve released satellite imagery of trucks with weapons crossing the border. I mean, I don’t – like, at a certain point --

QUESTION: I’m sorry, just for curiosity’s sake, one last thing: When President Putin refused to take the bait and expel American diplomats, what was the reaction from President Obama? Just to – I’m personally curious.

QUESTION: Could you repeat that question? He didn’t have the mike.

MR RHODES: I’ll repeat it because let’s – I have to move on, take one last question on this just so I end on a happier note. The – he didn’t have a reaction under – we took an action because it was in our national interests to do so. Here’s – this is – President Obama is not somebody who personalizes disputes with foreign countries. I mean, everything that all of you have seen in how he interacts with countries – he represents the United States of America. He represents a set of interests and values. He doesn’t approach these things as duels or – and frankly, he’s always believed that the measure of his efforts as President is how strong is America and how are we positioned.

And look, our – we feel very good about the work that we’ve done to strengthen the American economy, the American social safety net, social inclusion in America to promote a broader set of relations in the world. And frankly, that is the measure by which we look at how strong we are. And frankly, my concern is that – is also that I don’t see this benefiting the Russian people. I know that they’re not interested in my view in Moscow on this, but the – we could have a situation where there is much greater economic growth and much less tension and we’re cooperating, as we have historically, on areas like arms control and even European security. And I just think that even as someone who’s not going to be in this job in three days, that is so clearly better for everybody, including Russia, than --

QUESTION: Sorry. If Trump succeeds (inaudible) --

MR RHODES: No, no, no. I got to move on just because – look, we want Trump to succeed as president of the United States, but we also believe that the liberal international order that every president of every party since World War II has invested in has got to be part of the foundation of our approach to the world.

I’ll take one last question because I think I got to run. We’ll go here.

QUESTION: My name is Sanna Bjorling. I’m a Swedish reporter from Dagens Nyheter, a Swedish newspaper. I wonder – the Nordic countries have very good and close relationships with the United States, NATO members or not. Sweden has, during the Obama years, deepened its relationships – bilateral relationships with the United States. And now, we had the Nordic summit last spring that was considered a huge success and a lot of this, of course, takes place with the long-term actions of Russia in the background. And I wonder if you have spoken to the incoming administration about Scandinavia and the Nordic countries.

MR RHODES: So I haven’t personally, but I know President Obama always holds out the Nordic countries as the model of global citizenry. What is striking about how we’ve been able to cooperate is that it’s – yes, it’s bilateral issues and multilateral issues, but it’s what we’re doing together on development around the world or what we’re doing in the Arctic to address both security and environmental concerns, and that frankly, people are looking for a model of how to be a stakeholder in the international system that we’re talking about. I think the Nordic countries, they contribute to our security efforts, they contribute to our counterterrorism efforts, they are close commercial partners, but they also have a sense of altruism and a sense that their own future is better when people on the other side of the world can have healthier lives and safer drinking water and can resolve conflicts peacefully.

That, I think, is the mindset that everybody has to get back to because in the long run, the interesting thing is that even as there’s this return to a more populist approach to politics in a lot of places and a more nationalist approach, the issues that are going to be of concern to people going forward are less national. They are global – climate, pandemic disease, cyberspace that is interwoven across borders, migration flows. So ultimately, that is why I feel like – that the strain that cuts against that type of approach is just going to run into a hard reality wherein it’s going to be incapable of solving the problems that exist in the world.

So that’s a long way of saying I don’t know how specifically President Obama has discussed the Nordic countries, but I know that he frequently holds them out as a model of international cooperation and citizenship.

Great, thanks. Thanks, everybody. Sorry to run, but thank you all again for eight years of good and spirited dialogue on a lot of important issues. (Applause.)

MODERATOR: Thank you very much.

* ed: overestimate

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