The State of Trans-Atlantic RelationsR. Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary for Political Affairs
Via Video Conference to the Annual Athens Economist Conference
April 5, 2006
CHAIRMAN: It's Daniel Franklin here from The Economist, welcome back to Athens, at least part of you, your image is here, it’s very good to have you back in Athens. I’ll just briefly introduce you and then allow you to speak directly to every one. You have several hundred people in the room here at the Hilton in Athens.
I guess we knew about a year ago that the administration at the State Department of Condoleezza Rice was going to be a very smart one when you were chosen as the number three there, because choosing someone who knows Greece so well as you do, has to be a very good idea.
Of course as you all know, you are very familiar with Nicolas Burns from his time, a very distinguished time as Ambassador here. Before that he was of course spokesman at the State Department and he went on after Athens to be Ambassador to NATO at a very critical time for NATO, before going on to be the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and of course that’s the most senior career Foreign Service position in the State Department.
So we are very pleased to have you with us tonight, Secretary Burns. The idea as you know is for you to address us and then we I think have the ability to – with the wonders of technology – ask you some questions afterwards. Welcome.
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Thank you very much, Daniel. ÊáëçóðÝñá óáò, åßíáé ôéìÞ ìïõ ðïõ åßìáé ìáæß óáò áðüøå óôçí ÁèÞíá. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a great pleasure for me to be with you. I’m very sorry that I can't be in Athens. Believe me, if I could transport myself to Greece I would be with you in the Hilton tonight.
I’m here at the State Department. We’ve had a busy morning because we’ve been working on the Iran issue and on Iraq and various other issues. I though that the best use of your time might be if I didn’t give you a major speech but instead just said a few words about our relationship with Greece and with Europe and how we view some of the major challenges in the world and then get on to a dialogue with you. I’d very much like take your questions and hear what's on your mind.
I will start by saying we just had a visit here in Washington two weeks ago by the Greek Foreign Minister, Dora Bakoyanni, and I think as someone who has participated in the US-Greece relationship for the last 20 years, I think we've never had in the last 20 years a time when our two governments, in Athens and Washington, have worked so closely and so well together. We have great respect for Costas Karamanlis, the Prime Minister, and for Dora Bakoyanni as well.
And I think in addition to the personal relations that are very good between President Bush and Secretary Rice and the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, much more importantly we have an intersecting set of interests. Greece has an obvious interest in stability in the Balkans, we share that interest. We are hoping very much that we will be able to solidify the situation in Bosnia to advance the situation in Kosovo towards a final status conducted by the United Nations.
I think both of us certainly have an interest in seeing a healthy relationship between the US and the European Union. And if there is one thing that I think we've done very well together, Europe and the United States, over the last year, it's to refloat our relationship. It's not a secret that in 2002 and 2003 there was a war of words across the Atlantic that a lot of old and friendly allies had a major argument over the Iraq War and the events leading up to that war.
And I know that we’ve tried very hard on the part of the United States to cement the links that we have with Europe over the past year. We feel that the European governments and people have made the same attempt. And I can tell you, I think the relationship is very healthy. I was with Secretary Rice last week in Berlin where we met the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers, along with the German, French and British foreign ministers.
We had an excellent meeting with Chancellor Merkel in Berlin and then we went to Paris and had an equally good meeting with President Chirac. And then of course the Secretary spent the better part of five days with Jack Straw in Britain and in Iraq as testimony to the solidity of the special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States.
So I think that the US and Europe have returned to normal and we Americans certainly understand the importance of both the European Union and also of NATO as a centrepiece of that relationship.
That’s the first thing I wanted to say Daniel. The second point I’ll make - and then I want to get to a discussion – is this: there has been a profound transformation in the relationship between the European countries and the United States. For most of the Cold War, indeed from the Second World War to just a few years ago our relationship across the Atlantic was all about the crisis in Europe. It was about the divisions in Europe during the Cold War. It was about the Soviet and Warsaw Pact threat. In the 1990s it was about the two wars in the Balkans that were so devastating in terms of cost of human life.
And I think that our relationship has now changed quite profoundly, because Europe is now whole, and it's peaceful and we cannot look into the future and fortunately see any prospect of a major problem in Europe in terms of war or division.
We in Europe and the United States, our relationship has changed. It’s now more a function of what’s going on in the rest of the world. So when we get together with the Greek government or the British or French governments, we tend to talk not so much about what is happening inside Europe but about our mutual responsibility to be effective on behalf of our peoples in promoting a more peaceful world and in promoting a world that is more just.
And so the issues that we talk about tend to be these transnational issues that increasingly are our concern and yours too in a globalised world. It’s international crime, trafficking in women and children, global climate change, the international drug cartels that are so pernicious and so invasive both in Europe and in the United States. And certainly we talk about the scourge and the factor of global terrorism and its juxtaposition with chemical and biological and nuclear technology which is available on the Internet, which of course is the gravest threat that all of us face.
So our conversations, European and American, tend to focus on those issues. And they also focus on the joint responsibility and the common interest that we have in making sure that we are doing what we can to see that there is peace eventually between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. That we find a way to end this horrible violence in Iraq. That we find a way to deal with the challenge of an Iranian government which is asserting its right to nuclear weaponry and which is the leading sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East. That we find a way to work together as our soldiers are in Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban and Al Queda from coming back to destabilize Afghanistan.
And I think that this common European-American responsibility for peace and for stability in the Middle East is vital for Europe and it’s vital for the United States as well. Our vision has to extend beyond the Middle East of course. It’s got to extend to South Asia where increasingly India has become a global power, economically and politically and where the United States and Europe are trying now to assert a much more expansive relationship with that great democracy of one billion people in India.
It certainly extends eastward, in East Asia, to the need to develop a manageable relationship with China. And I don’t think either Europe or the United States want to try to contain China. We don't see China as some kind of modern day reincarnation of the Soviet Union of the post Cold War era. But we do see the need to maintain the balance of power in Asia, to maintain a peaceful and friendly relationship with China and also to manage an economic relationship where we believe China needs to learn and needs to adjust to playing by all the rules of the international trading system.
And so dealing with India and China as rising powers in the East, and perhaps as the two powers that will show the greatest growth and influence in the world in the 21st century, that also has to be a common European-American venture.
And I’d finally say Daniel that I think Europeans and Americans, in addition to the balance of power politics that are involved in our situation in East and South Asia, we have a common moral and humanitarian interest in trying to help those in Africa, in Latin America, in parts of the Asia-Pacific region, who are victims of these global pandemics, whether it’s HIV-AIDS, or Avian Flu, or victims of poverty, there are so many billions of people living in poverty in the world. We have a common responsibility to do what we can, the European Union, the United States, to convey humanitarian assistance to those people so that their lives are improved and they achieve the basic necessities of life. But on a more cosmic level that stability in Africa, stability in our part of the world, the western hemisphere, the Americas, can be achieved in the future.
I don’t think we can lose sight as diplomats or business people or NGO leaders of our moral responsibility to use the wealth of our societies to help those less fortunate in the world.
So, I didn’t want to give you a speech and I don’t mean to continue one, but I didn’t want to try to paint a picture of a changing European-American relationship, of the common responsibilities we have that are now global, and of the need for Europeans and Americans to have a global view and to understand and accept the reality that we can't just live for ourselves, we can't have foreign and defence policies that serve only the interest of our own regions, but because of the power of Europe economically and the power of my own country economically and politically and militarily we have a self-interest as well as a responsibility to be active in the world, engaged in it.
When I was in Athens I remember many debates with my Greek friends about whether or not the United States should be isolationist or involved in the world, whether we should be unilateralist or multilateralist. I hope that you have seen over the past year or so an American government that believes that America cannot be isolationist, must be involved in the world and that we cannot be unilateralist, that we cannot go it alone, that despite our own power America is not going to be successful unless we work with our friends and through our alliances and partnerships around the world.
And that’s why we’ve given so much attention in the past year to NATO and to an improved relationship with the European Union and to working through ASEAN in Southeast Asia and APAC and working through the organization of American states here in the western hemisphere. And we do value those partnerships and we Americans are convinced, I think not just as a government but as a people – 300 million Americans – that we need to live in the world, be engaged in it and be a good neighbour to our friends in the world.
So those are just some thoughts I wanted to offer. Again, I truly wish that I could be in the Hilton tonight with you under an Athenian sky. And I will be coming to Greece very shortly but I’m very happy through technology, Daniel, to be able to speak to you. And now I’ll be very happy to take any questions that you’d like to ask me.
CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much. Yes, we have a question over here. I think if you look at the camera over there then Secretary Burns might actually see you.
MR. F. ASIMAKIS: Nicolas, this is Filoklis Asimakis, hello, how is everything with you?
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I see you Filoklis, nice to see you.
MR. F. ASIMAKIS: Nice to see you, Nicolas. I want to remind you of something that you said and you made us very proud, in Mytilini I think, it was 1999. After you came from Smyrna when you said to some big journalist how there is Greek blood underneath here. So you went to Mytilini in those days, I think someone from the other side said something about the grey zones, whatever, about islands of the Aegean. And you said to us: that I don’t know what they say from someplaces but we do know all in America that the Aegean islands have been always Greek. Do you insist on that? That’s all.
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Mr. Asimakis, you are trying to get me in trouble, aren’t you? What I would say is this: we have two great friends in the Aegean region: Greece, which is our NATO ally and a member of the European Union, Turkey which is our NATO ally and we hope soon to be a member of the European Union. And the last thing that an outsider like an American should do is start trying to draw lines in the Aegean and try to decide who owns what. I think that the United States has been very clear for over half a century, that we want to see peace in that part of the world and if there are legal disputes between either country they should be worked out by those two countries.
And I think since 1999, since the tragedy of the earthquake in Turkey and then the earthquake in Greece that we all lived through in Athens, I’ll never forget that earthquake in Athens and how tragic it was for the people who were killed, you've seen Greece and Turkey reach out to each other. You saw the rapprochement that George Papandreou led on behalf of the Greek government that has now been taken up by Prime Minister Karamanlis and Dora Bakoyanni, the Foreign Minister. You've seen the Turkish government rely upon Greece to support it, indeed to guide through the challenges of achieving EU membership.
And so I think we should let the Greeks and Turks work out their differences knowing that the relationship is vastly improved over the last six or seven years from what it was in the 1980s and the 1990s.
And you know a lot of people complain about Americans intervening too much in the world. You don’t want America to intervene in legal disputes about where the border is. But I know that Greeks and Turks can resolve this problem on their own and that has to be the future. We would hope to see a much greater trading relationship between Greece and Turkey, many more tourists from both countries, each country visiting the other. And I think most Turks would say the same thing as Greeks do, you want a peaceful future and I think that future is certainly possible.
CHAIRMAN: Thank you. There is another question just here. Yes, and could you stand up please to make it easier.
MR. S. STAVRIDIS: I'm Stelios Stavridis, how are you? I would like to have your comment on the Macedonia issue which has upset a lot of us. We know how delicate this issue is for Europe. I know how sensitive the balance is, we understand your difficulties but are you optimistic that the United States could help Greece and FYROM to find a solution on the name, Greece being one or perhaps the biggest investor in Macedonia? Thank you very much.
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Stelios, thank you for your question. It's nice to see you. I would just say that Greece in our view has an obvious interest in seeing Macedonia become a successful country. Greece is the leading investor, a leading trade partner, you're the closest neighbour. And that country is young, it's fragile, of course it has a very delicate balance of ethnic groups in its political structure and its population.
So what we would say is that both countries need to work on developing a better political relationship to match what I perceive to be a very active private sector trading relationship led by the Greek business community. And I commend the Greek business community for what you've been able to do to help stabilise that country.
It’s no secret I think that my country has taken a different position bilaterally in what we call that country. We call it Macedonia. We decided that in November of 2004. But for the purposes of the Greek relationship with Macedonia it's up to you and the government in Skopje to decide bilaterally between you what that relationship is going to be. And I know that Ambassador Nimitz who has been appointed by the United Nations Secretary General is actively trying to negotiate or help the two countries negotiate a solution that that problem. And we wish both countries well and we don’t take a position on that issue.
I don’t think you need again American intervention in that issue because you have the United Nations trying to play the role of a middle man or a mediator in that issue.
Stelios, your question is important because I do think that Greece - and Secretary Rice and Dora Bakoyanni spoke about this two weeks ago in Washington - Greece has a major role to play in the Balkans region, not just in terms of your relationship with Macedonia. What happens in Kosovo – we are now seven years after the war and there has to be a successful negotiation this year led by the United Nations to determine the final status of Kosovo. But if Kosovo is going to be truly united and stable in the future it's going to require the political support of Greece and frankly the investment and trade opportunities that only Greece because of your economic health and power in the region can give.
I think Greece has a similar role to play obviously in your relationship with Albania as well as Bosnia-Herzegovina. And so the Balkans remains the last part of Europe that is not stable, that has not been successfully integrated in the European Union and NATO. And I think that Greece and the United States agree that in the future Serbia and Bosnia and Croatia, Albania, Macedonia, we hope they will all have a future in NATO and a future in the European Union. But first this problem of Kosovo needs to be resolved by negotiation this year.
And I know that the government in Athens and our government are very closely working together on that goal.
CHAIRMAN: I think this next question is going to have to be the last one. It might be all we have time for. Yes, over there.
QUESTION: Mr. Burns, do you recognise the treaties drawn for the border between Greece and Turkey over the last 100 years or not? Does the US recognise the treaties that have drawn the borders of Greece over the last 100 years or not? Because the answer you gave us is that we don't know the borders, you figure that. The European Union has accepted the borders, do you accept them? Thank you.
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Thank you very much. And this doesn’t have to be the last question from my perspective. Have you got no more time?
Thank you for asking this question. I hope I wasn't misunderstood. When Greece became a Treaty Ally of NATO and of the United States in 1952 when Greece entered NATO and Turkey entered by the way the same day, we did accept and recognise borders that had been drawn by the international treaty. So you are absolutely correct. And I didn't mean to imply that we don't recognise the international treaties that have governed that relationship.
What has happened in the last 55 years, is that there have been times in very isolated instances, you remember the question of Imia for instance, where the two countries, Greece and Turkey, have been in dispute about the interpretation of the Treaty. And what I meant to say is that I don't think either government is inviting the United States to be the arbiter of the treaties. That’s more a role for the two countries because they are sovereign countries.
But if you are asking do we recognize Greek borders, of course we do. And the United States has never said or done anything that would question the viability of Greece's borders and we've routinely argued that there should be mutual respect, that there shouldn't be overflights by military aircraft of the islands that lie along the border. And we’ve consistently argued for peacefully adjudication of dispute. So we are just trying to be responsible in the stance that we have taken over many years.
Daniel, if you’ve got time I’m happy to answer one or two more questions, maybe I’ll try to be more brief in my answers.
CHAIRMAN: Our satellite time runs out in just a couple of minutes. So we could take one more. The gentleman over here was the next, so we’ll take one more if we may.
MR. A. KOSTOPOULOS: Mr. Ambassador, Mr. Secretary now, hello, my name is Alex Kostopoulos. I have a quick question for you. Over the last years we have seen tremendous changes in economic development in many Arab countries. Do you think that once again Greek and American partnership and synergies could help these economies just like we did in some countries in the Balkans to meet these tremendous opportunities? Thank you.
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Alex, thank you very much for your question. You know Greece, because of your historic trade relations with the Levant and also with the Gulf region, which continue today because of the power of your shipping industry. Greece certainly has a role to play in trade well beyond the Balkan and Aegean regions and well into the Middle East. And I think you are right to suggest that both of our countries need to be active in free trade with the Arab countries. And that’s also good for our private sectors.
I would also say this however, that in addition to our economic influence, Greece and the United States as two of the great democracies of the world, you are the oldest, you are the father and defender of democratic movements worldwide, and we as one of the youngest, I think that it’s our political systems that hopefully over time will, this may take a generation or two, be replicated in the life of the Arab peoples. We don’t want to tell the Arabs how to govern themselves, that's for them to decide, but we do believe as democrats, I think Greeks feel this, if I can say that as someone who is a philhellene, I know Americans feel it, it’s the right of every person to be free. That’s what the ancient Greeks stood for. That’s what our founding fathers stood for, that people had political rights, religious rights, the rights of freedom of speech and the press. And we would hope that over time that would be the trend in the world. You can't manufacture that, you can't dictate it, it won't happen tomorrow. But both of our governments need to stand for that, and I think we do stand for that in the world.
And as I reflect on the US-Greece relationship, which I think is a very strong relationship that to me is the essence of the relationship. It’s our spirit of 1776 and yours of 1821 but also more importantly the Greek contribution to western civilization from ancient times. And so that’s an important moral and political force in the world which your country and mine share. I think we should be proud of that as Greeks and Americans.
CHAIRMAN: Secretary Burns, as you may not have been able to see there have been many, many other hands going up here. I think if our satellite time had allowed we could have spent a long time together this evening but I think we’ll have to end it there. And certainly we appreciate you joining us this evening and we hope that next year we may have here in person as well but this is very well. Thank you very much.
UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Thank you. Thanks, Daniel. I’ll try to come next year.