Foreign Policy Remarks at the Yerevan School of Political Studies

Ambassador Richard Mills Remarks at Opening of Ministry of Health’s Tavush Regional Laboratory of the National Center of Disease Control and Prevention

Thank you for your warm welcome, and for inviting me to join you today.  You may have heard that one of my top priorities as the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia is to do my best to make sure that Armenians of all backgrounds have the opportunity to better understand U.S. foreign policy.  For that reason, it’s a special pleasure for me to speak here today, for you not only have demonstrated a keen interest in political affairs, but also represent a wide range of professions, from media to academia, from civil society to government.  I’m impressed by the degree of diversity in your class, and I am sure we will have a very interesting and lively discussion today.

As some of you may know, I was a young diplomat working at the State Department in Washington when the Soviet Union broke up 25 years ago, and I had the honor of serving as the very first desk officer for the independent state of Armenia.  Even after moving on to other diplomatic assignments, I continued to follow developments in Armenia, because I felt special warmth towards this country.  You can imagine how marvelous it has been for me to be able to serve here as ambassador, all these years later.

Armenia has made a great deal of progress in the years since independence, and I think that for Armenia to continue on that path, it needs dedicated professionals like you, who know how to make sense of global developments, who understand why countries act the way they do, and who feel comfortable navigating on the global stage.  That is why I wanted to discuss U.S. foreign policy with you today, to give you a better understanding of what factors and values underpin our policies and actions.  A full discussion of U.S. foreign policy would take far longer than I have today, so what I would like to do is highlight a few of our top global priorities at present.  I’ve tried to keep my remarks short, because I want to leave plenty of time to answer your questions at the end.

As Armenia is culturally and geopolitically connected to Europe, let me start with our transatlantic policy.  Our overarching goal on the European continent, one that we have been working on for 25 years, is a Europe – whole, free, and at peace.  Now, “free” and “at peace” are pretty self-explanatory, but let me take a moment to explain what we mean by “whole.”  In essence, in the aftermath of two World Wars and the Cold War, we stand – with our European allies – for a Europe that is undivided, with no spheres of influence that create artificial military or economic lines.  Our complete rejection of a demarcated, divided Europe parceled into spheres of influence, our goal of a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace, explains the reaction of the U.S. and our European partners to the Russian aggression in Ukraine.  Russia’s aggressive actions represent a step backward, an attempt to return to an era of division and conflict.  That is not why we fought the Cold War.  We fought in order to defend values that have continued to shape our foreign policy with Europe, and of which we are proud:  democratic choice, collective security, peace, tolerance, and shared prosperity.  Within this framework, you can understand why the U.S. and our transatlantic allies have taken such a strong stance against Russian actions in Ukraine, and why we will continue to push Russia to respect the commitments it made under the Minsk agreement, including the withdrawal of all foreign forces, weapons and landmines from Crimea; political normalization; the return of all hostages; and full humanitarian access for UN agencies, Ukrainian NGOs, and government relief agencies.

While on the subject of Russia, I want to emphasize that despite some stark policy differences, the United States and Russia have sought and found common ground and cooperation on other issues of importance to the international community, most notably on the Iran nuclear issue and within the OSCE Minsk Group process, where the American, Russian, and French Co-Chairs continue to engage effectively.  And as I will discuss shortly, yesterday in Munich on efforts to stop the bloodshed in Syria and find a political solution to the tragic conflict there.  I think it is important, as we discuss U.S.-Russian relations, and the history of those relations, to have as context the history of U.S. engagement with Russia over the past 25 years.  When the Soviet Union collapsed, we were there as a partner for the Russian people, providing more than $20 billion dollars over the years to help Russia strengthen and open its economy, promote open governance, and improve health care, as well as to encourage closer ties between Russia and NATO.  We therefore reject the narrative of grievance that is popular in Moscow today, a narrative that claims the U.S. Government wanted a weak Russia.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  What we wanted, what we still want, is a strong, democratic Russia that respects the rule of law at home and abroad, as well as the sovereignty of its neighbors.  A Russia that works with us, and with Europe, to build peace and security.  But that can’t happen if Russia continues to trample on the international system, biting off pieces of its neighbors’ territory and bullying them into economic and political submission.  The political leadership in Russia has to make the decision to abide by international norms of behavior – to stop fueling the conflict and to allow Ukraine to control its side of the international border, so that it can rebuild political, economic, and societal structures, work through the legitimate grievances of those in the east, and give the people of the Donbas a chance to decide their own future peacefully and lawfully.  In sum – the ball is in Russia’s court, and we are waiting for it to act.

I am asked often by Armenians how the U.S.-Russian relationship affects the way we view the Armenian-Russian relationship.  Let me say that we recognize, as a reality of geography and history, that your two nations enjoy strong ties.  I believe, as I think most Armenians do, that this strong Armenian-Russian relationship, and Armenia’s memberships in the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, should not and does not preclude Armenia from also pursuing strong, mutually beneficial relations with the United States, the European Union, and other potential partners, as well as with organizations like NATO and the Council of Europe.  These relationships are not mutually exclusive.  It is not a zero sum world.  The U.S. values its friendship with Armenia and wants to not only maintain our friendly relations, but make them stronger and deeper.  Armenia, like the U.S., needs healthy, close relations with as many nations as possible, and like all sovereign countries, Armenia is free to pursue relations with whom it wishes.

Another enormous challenge the world faces today is the threat of Islamic extremists and non-state actors such as Daesh (also known as ISIL or ISIS).  This struggle has destabilized Syria and sent waves of refugees into the world.  The U.S. and its allies are leading the combat against terrorism because, as President Obama said during his recent State of the Union address, our priority is protecting Americans and other innocent people from these terrorist groups.  So, together with a 65-member international coalition, we have mobilized to defeat the terrorists, and Armenia is considering how it can contribute to that effort.  The coalition’s efforts are directed both at Daesh’s core networks in Syria and Iraq and at strangling attempts by the terrorists to establish branches or inspire attacks elsewhere.  We are also working with partners to prevent violence in the Middle East from spreading and to care for the refugees that Daesh is creating.  We appreciate Armenia’s significant role in these efforts, for Armenia ranks third among European nations in the number of Syrian refugees it has accepted.  And of course, Armenia continues to shoulder important responsibilities in NATO and UN peacekeeping missions.

The U.S. is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, having contributed some $5.1 billion in aid since the conflict began in 2011, including an additional $601 million that Secretary Kerry announced just a few days ago.  But when we look at the numbers – 1 Syrian in 20 has been killed or wounded in the past 4 ½ years, 1 in 5 is a refugee, 1 in 2 has been displaced – it becomes abundantly clear that humanitarian aid cannot be an end unto itself, and that we must put an end to the refugee crisis.  And to do that, we must put an end to the conflict itself.  That is why we are deeply involved in ongoing diplomatic initiatives to de-escalate the conflict in Syria and encourage a political transition.  And yesterday, as I’m sure you know from reading the paper this morning, we had a significant breakthrough in Munich, where all the members of the International Support Group for Syria – including Secretary Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, and representatives of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the EU and others – met and announced significant progress in efforts to stop the violence in Syria.     You will recall that back in December, for the first time, the U.S. – joined by every one of the major international players – succeeded in working with fellow members of the UN Security Council in passing resolution 2254 endorsing the work of the International Syria Support Group, and agreeing on a set of commitments to end the war – including full humanitarian access and a cease-fire, as well as political talks to decide on the mechanics of a political transition in Syria.  That effort at the UN led to UN-sponsored negotiations in Geneva between the Syrian parties, which began under the stewardship of UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura.  Tragically, as you know, the situation in Syria grew steadily worse just as the Geneva talks were to begin.  During this time, it was the perception of the U.S. Government and many members of the International Support Group that the regime of Bashar al-Assad was violating international law by trying to force surrender through starvation.  And with the help of indiscriminate bombing, the regime intensified its assault in Aleppo, killing civilians and forcing more than 60,000 Syrians to flee their homes in search of refuge across the Turkish border.  And it is our perception that rather than hurting Daesh, this process has, in fact,empowered Daesh to take advantage of the chaos.

The UN Envoy, after conversing with both sides, wisely chose to delay the Geneva talks knowing that the International Support Group would meet in Munich yesterday.  The Envoy agreed that the International Support Group parties should try to make necessary progress on humanitarian access and implementing a ceasefire on both sides.

And yesterday, Secretary of State Kerry joined by Foreign Minister Lavrov and other International Support Group members announced progress on both the humanitarian front and in achieving a cessation of hostilities.

First, as you may have read, there was agreement to accelerate and expand the delivery of humanitarian aid beginning immediately. Sustained delivery will begin this week, first to the areas where it is most urgently needed:  Deir al-Zor, Kafrayah, the besieged areas of rural Damascus, and then to all the people in need throughout the country.

This access is specifically called for in UNSC resolution 2254 and to ensure that it is fully implemented the United Nations will convene a task force made up of members of the International Support Group, relevant UN entities, and countries that have an influence on the parties.  This working group will meet tomorrow in Geneva and have the responsibility to ensure humanitarian access is granted by all sides to all people who require help.

As Secretary Kerry emphasized in his remarks yesterday, this decision was unanimous, all members of the International Support Group agreed on the urgency of humanitarian access.  But these words on paper must now be turned into actions on the ground in the field within days.

Secondly, the members of the International Support Group agreed to a nationwide cessation of hostilities to begin in one week’s time.  That is ambitious, but all members of the Group determined to move as rapidly as possible to use their influence with the warring parties.  This cease-fire will apply to any and all parties in Syria with the exception of the terrorist organizations Daesh and al-Nusrah and any other terrorist organization designated by the Security Council.  To achieve this goal, a task force was established under the auspices of the UN, co-chaired by Russia and the United States, which over the coming week will develop the mechanisms for a long-term, comprehensive, and durable cessation of hostilities.

I want to underscore that putting an end to the violence and the bloodshed is obviously essential, as is providing Syrians who are starving the humanitarian aid that they desperately need. But ultimately the end of this conflict will only come when the parties agree on a plan for a political transition in accordance with the Geneva communique of 2012.  And the U.S. Government has no illusions about how difficult that is.  But without a political transition it is not possible to achieve peace.

All International Support Group members agreed that the Geneva talks should resume as soon as possible in strict compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which set out a six-month timeframe for the political transition process in Syria.

And let me highlight one more statement Secretary Kerry made yesterday.  There can be no progress on instituting a ceasefire or improving humanitarian assistance without all of the International Support Group members working with Russia and others.  And to that end the U.S. Government will cooperatively work with Russia in a way that deals with the political, the humanitarian, and the military components of this challenge.

The longer this conflict persists the better it is for extremists, the more people like Daesh profit.  I am hopeful that the progress made yesterday in Munich will be real and we’ll see a reduction in the suffering of the Syrian people.

The progress yesterday is an example of how today, governments must work together through diplomacy on issues of concern.  Like the United States, Armenia too understands nations must work together on global issues of concern, and not just when it comes to combating violence and peacekeeping missions.  A sterling example of the type of cooperation I’m talking about is the historic climate change agreement adopted in Paris late last year by almost 200 nations, including the U.S. and Armenia.  This agreement marks international concurrence that now is the time to undertake a permanent transition to a new and low-carbon energy future for the world, and we need to continue to build on the momentum generated in Paris to ensure that the agreement is formally adopted and implemented.  We know that our future foreign policy will be shaped in part by the challenges caused by changes in our weather. That is why the U.S. is continually pushing for meaningful efforts to decrease human degradation of our environment – not only for the sake of future generations and their right to clean air and water and weather patterns that have not been made more destructive by human actions, but also as a preventative effort against future conflicts.

Armenia and the U.S. have stood united in one last area that I want to touch upon before taking your questions, and that is the sanctions program that helped bring about a negotiated agreement with Iran over its nuclear program.  On October 18, 2015, when the negotiating teams adopted the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, we achieved an important milestone in our efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  And when we reached Implementation Day on January 16, just a few days ago, the Iran nuclear agreement transitioned from an ambitious set of promises on paper to measurable action in progress.  The world is now in a better position to ensure Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful going forward.  In recognition of the steps Iran has taken thus far, the United States and the EU immediately lifted nuclear-related sanctions.  Of course, verification remains the backbone of the Iran nuclear agreement, and we will remain vigilant in verifying Iran’s continued full compliance in the months and years ahead.  I want to acknowledge and emphasize the part that Armenia played, fully respecting the international community’s sanctions on Iran over the years, even when that effort came at some cost to Armenia and its economy.  This was a meaningful sign of how seriously Armenia takes its role in the larger international community.  It is this kind of international unity that made it possible to achieve the agreement via diplomatic means.  As Secretary Kerry mentioned with regard to Implementation Day, this achievement once again proves why diplomacy must always be our first choice, and war our last resort.

Let me conclude with a message I believe strongly in – that diplomacy can be an enormously powerful force.  We’ve seen the fruit of diplomacy in the agreements we’ve reached on climate change in Paris and on Iran’s nuclear program in Switzerland.  These game-changing agreements were the result of marathon sessions at the negotiating table, not armed violence.  And it is thanks to the dogged and dedicated diplomatic work of the U.S., and of our allies and partners, that we have seen real progress in issues of grave concern all over the world – for instance, in our global efforts to halt the spread of ebola and HIV/AIDS, in the challenges we are facing and the progress we are making in Afghanistan, and in our global stand against the threat of violent extremism.

I would like to now open it up to your questions about U.S. foreign policy, not just about our relationship with Armenia but how we view our actions globally.  My goal is that you leave here today able to say “this is what the U.S. is doing on a particular issue, and now I understand why.”