Foreign Policy Remarks at the AUA

Thank you for your warm welcome.  It is always a pleasure to visit AUA, and I especially appreciate the opportunity to talk with young Armenian students.  Unlike your parents, you have lived your entire lives in an independent Armenia. For you, Soviet Armenia – and the dark days following the breakup of the Soviet Union – are a matter of history, not memory.  I think that that gives you a unique perspective, and I have high hopes that as you complete your studies, begin your careers, and get involved in your communities, you will continue to carry forward the important progress we’ve seen in Armenia over the last 25 years.

And for Armenia to continue on this path of progress, it needs a new generation that has an understanding of international affairs; it needs students like you who know how and why countries act the way they do, it needs diplomats, civil society leaders, and corporate bosses who know how to navigate on the global stage.  It is within that context that 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 – basically, of why America does what it does.  A thorough discussion of U.S. foreign policy would obviously 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.  The U.S. and our transatlantic allies stand for democratic choice, collective security, peace, tolerance, and prosperity.  These are the values that shape our foreign policy with Europe, and we affirm them with pride.

The most pressing challenge we face in Europe is the conflict arising from Russian aggression in Ukraine.  I believe the situation can be better viewed as a conflict between Russia and the larger democratic Western community, one which runs counter to our shared transatlantic goal of a Europe whole, free, and at peace.  That is why the U.S. and our allies have taken such a strong stance against this Russian aggression, 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, most notably on the Iran nuclear issue and within the OSCE Minsk Group process.  And as we discuss U.S.-Russian relations, and the history of those relations, I think it important to remember, too, that 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 that we 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.

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. Armenia, like the U.S., needs healthy, close relations with as many nations as possible.

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.  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 refugees.  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 $4.5 billion in aid since the conflict began in 2011. 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 renewed diplomatic initiatives to de-escalate the conflict in Syria and encourage a political transition, thus further isolating and degrading the terrorists and creating a safer environment for the Syrian people.  We are encouraged by recent steps towards this goal.  In December, for the first time, the U.S. – joined by every one of the major international players – passed a resolution endorsing the work of the International Syria Support Group, and with the weight of the international community behind this initiative, talks have been scheduled between the responsible opposition and Syria’s government for January 25th.  We hope that all the players involved, including Russia and Iran, will genuinely push for the implementation of the Geneva communiqué, which calls for a transition unity government.

Like the U.S., Armenia 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 ourlast resort.

I hope the areas I touched on have helped you have a better understanding of U.S. foreign policy.

Let me conclude with a message I believe strongly in – diplomacy can be a 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 with that, 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.”