European Affairs

Kurt Volker: U.S. and EU Must Not Get Distracted from Agenda     Print

Kurt VolkerFor the Bush administration's remaining 18 months in office, the State Department has a short list of main concerns for the region. They are the end state of Kosovo; relations with Russia, particularly concerning energy and security; and moves to stabilize Afghanistan. Volker analyzes this list through the prism of relations with Europe.

The State Department's European affairs bureau has publicly set itself three main current ambitions: settlement in Kosovo, stability in Afghanistan, status-quo with Russia. In practice, none of these goals seems likely to be reached on the schedule Washington had hoped for.

On the status of Kosovo, any resolution has apparently been postponed, probably for a year until spring 2008. The new delay apparently was deemed necessary for further U.S efforts to win Russian backing and to win over wavering Europeans. Assistant Secretary Daniel Fried, who had been saying that Kosovo's independence was coming in "weeks, not months," changed the calendar: asked in July 2007 about the likely date, he was quoted saying "I suspect it will be a number of months before" the April 2008 summit of NATO leaders in Romania.

In Afghanistan, NATO forces succeeded militarily in the spring of 2007, pre-empting a threatened Taliban offensive with their own offensive that secured crucial infrastructure for development, notably the Kajaki Dam in the southern part of the country. But political support for the allied campaign is being undermined by criticism in Germany and some other European countries about the number of Afghan civilian casualties in the fighting.

Striving to contain Moscow's economic pressure on European countries, Washington seems to be hoping for a status that could be called "a cold non-war." Indications for the moment, however, suggest that Russia's power of intimidation against Europe, notably via energy, is growing and convincing the Putin regime that it can ignore calls to curb its authoritarian domestic trends and uncompromising diplomacy.

Second-in-command of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs at the Department of State – officially titled Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary – Kurt Volker handles U.S. affairs with Europe as a whole. He focuses strongly on Transatlantic ties in the context of relations with the European Union and via NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). A career foreign service officer since 1988, he has had direct experience with NATO both as a member of the U.S. mission and subsequently as deputy director of the private office of the Secretary-General. He left that post in 2001 to join the National Security Council under President George W. Bush as director for NATO and West Europe. He has worked extensively on the Balkans, including the allied peacekeeping operations there in the 1990s. His responsibilities in his present job include Congressional relations and strategic planning.

A central theme recurred throughout his European Affairs interview: that the United States and its European allies – and even Russia – have a shared interest in tackling the new sources of instability from Kosovo to Afghanistan and Iran. Urging the Atlantic community to keep strongly focused on these strategic issues, Mr. Volker welcomed the prospect of greater diplomatic agility for the EU and warned about attempts by a more assertive Russia to reopen old splits in Europe. In calling for Transatlantic unity on these geo-political issues, Mr. Volker voiced enthusiasm at the prospect of stronger leadership emerging now on the part of major EU nations.

But he was also frank that the United States gives priority to security in its concept of crisis management, viewing a minimum of stability as a precondition for effective development in trouble spots such as Afghanistan. This viewpoint – which dismays some Europeans as an over-emphasis on force – was portrayed by Mr. Volker as a stance that can help maintain momentum for the U.S. and the EU in pursuing shared objectives. In any case, he voiced the position that seems set to dominate U.S. policy toward Europe, certainly for the coming 18 months.

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European Affairs: The European Union summit has just ended, with the German presidency achieving progress on a limited treaty. What is your assessment?

Kurt Volker: A couple of things struck me. They did get a deal on a new treaty, which now the lawyers have to negotiate in detail. That is good: there has been [since the Constitution’s failure] concern, stagnation, lack of creativity, lack of willingness to move ahead on EU business. It is critical for the EU to really get its vision back about where it is going. That should be the significance of this.

I thought it was interesting that France’s Sarkozy appears to have played a role in helping put the deal together – working with Merkel, with Blair, with Kaczynski from Poland. That’s very encouraging too. To see France playing the role of a power broker in the EU in a pro-active, problem-solving way – that’s very constructive. For the EU to actually work, you have got to have all the big players trying to make it work.

Concerning a High Representative on Foreign Policy that merges the Benita Ferrero-Waldner and the Javier Solana jobs [respectively the Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy and the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy], it seems like a good idea because you have both the policy and the resources in one place, so someone can be more effective in doing what they are doing. I think the decision not to call it “European Foreign Minister” is a reflection of reality. Member states will still set foreign policy. They will be giving instructions to this person. If the new person wants to take an initiative in an international crisis, that person is not going to just go out and do it. He has to go back into the Council, to the 27, and try to get the countries to agree and then give him a mandate to go and do something. Importantly however, the person in this new job will have more on the power of assistance money. Where you have a neighborhood policy, you have engagement that the EU can do [things] with various countries. To be able to link that more nimbly to policy would be a very good thing. Not that it has been unconnected, it is just that it has been different heads, different priorities, different timescales – which hopefully get linked together better.

EA: Russia is showing new, tougher attitudes toward Europeans and the EU. What can the United States and Europe do together on influencing this situation?

KV: I think we and the Europeans see eye-to-eye pretty well on our assessment about what is going on with Russia. We are increasingly concerned about [anti-]democratic trends within Russia. We see demonstrators being prevented from demonstrating, centralization of the media, centralization of economic power, crack-downs to prevent some political parties from fielding candidates. A lot of their domestic things concern us, including NGOs’ ability to function and intimidation of journalists.

Then there is Russia’s pressure on its immediate neighbors – the embargo on Georgia, sustaining separatist regimes whether in Abkhazia or South Ossetia or Transnistria. We can mention Estonia’s problems when you talk about Russian pressure. Russia is not on the same page with Europe and the U.S. on key international issues like Kosovo.

Then there are the tactics of consolidating energy within Russia, using it as a political and a strategic tool externally and cutting deals that are aimed at extending that monopoly power – offering a 25-year contract for gas on condition of the customer selling its distribution infrastructure to the Russian gas exporter.

We could go on and on, but the question is: How should we react? How do we analyze it in a wider context?

I think Russia does seek to assert its interests in its neighboring countries – those that were part of the former Soviet Union and then their neighbors, including Central and Eastern Europe. That is why Moscow is raising the temperature so much on missile defense. It does not have anything to do with missile defense at all. (Ten interceptors without warheads cannot affect Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrence.) It’s about the idea that the U.S. or NATO or whoever would have new facilities in Central and Eastern Europe. In Russia’s view, it is unacceptable in what they see as their sphere of influence. At least, that’s the view they are seeking to put over.

EA: Are they trying to split Europeans along lines these lines of “old Europe” and “new Europe?”

KV: They are trying to split Europe – between East and West, between left and right, and from the U.S. as well. We just do not agree with the world view from which this is coming. First off, we don’t see a zero-sum game in Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Belarus and so forth. Countries that get democratic systems, market economies, some measure of prosperity, domestic stability, security, are better neighbors – for all of us. They will be less of a source of trafficking, smuggling, trafficking in persons, drugs, extremism – fewer transit routes for all of these things. This would make them good neighbors for Russia and for the rest of us.

Secondly, we do not want to be in a conflict with Russia. Of the challenges we face in the world, Russia faces the most important ones just like we do: terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, zealot regimes like in Iran, failed states or states we have to rebuild like Afghanistan. So we ought to go to work with Russia. We want to avoid being provoked [into zero-sum competition with Russia]. We also want to make sure that we stick together. The transatlantic community ought to be united both within Europe and the U.S. So we should not be spurred by a provocation – like [the current Russian one] on missile defense to head in various directions. We should slow down, talk with each other, explain what we are doing and keep moving ahead.

And we must keep our eyes on our own agenda. Our agenda is not conflict with the Russians. Our agenda is dealing with Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, the wider Middle East. Then there is Kosovo and stabilizing the Balkans and integrating the region into Europe. We and the Europeans agree on a great deal of this, including some common approaches on energy, notably investing in alternative supplies.

EA: Washington is promoting gas pipelines to Europe from the Caspian Basin. Has that potential been foreclosed by the recent supply contract that Turkmenistan signed with Russia?

KV: No. What Turkmenistan did agree, during President Putin’s visit there this spring, is to fulfill existing agreements, which had been drifting for years. The Turkmen finally said “yes” to the investments that were needed. The deal does not cover new, offshore Caspian gas production or preclude Turkmenistan from reaching further agreements on trans-Caspian pipelines to take its gas across to Azerbaijan, then to Turkey and Europe. Our goal is not to replace Russia as an energy supplier for Europe. No one should think that that is either possible or necessary. The concern is the way Russia today can use [its leverage] as a monopoly provider of energy to exert political and strategic influence.

EA: Does this lend more importance to Turkey as a partner for Europe because of its position as an energy carrier?

KV: Turkey already has that level of strategic importance. In Europe there is a widespread recognition among serious people of Turkey’s importance as a place where Islam and democracy come together, an energy transit corridor, a window (and a buffer) on the Middle East, a source of young people who can work and provide dynamism in the European economy. There is also a shorter-term populist impulse that a lot of [European] politicians pick up on for an electoral advantage: it says Turks are not like us, Turkey is not like an EU country, therefore it can never be part of the EU.

But you should not judge Turkey’s [EU potential] on the basis of what you see today. What is the right vision of Turkey’s future? A prosperous, democratic, secular, responsible country that is working well with Europe? Or an Islamic Republic, like Iran, that has drifted backwards on democracy, identifies itself more with the Middle East than with Europe and is a source of problems coming toward Europe rather than an exporter of democratic values from Europe? If you want the good model, you would look for a long period of EU engagement with Turkey aimed at developing it that way. You would not want to make any decisions about whether Turkey ought or ought not to be in the EU until you can see the Turkey you are talking about.

EA: On another piece of unfinished business, are the Europeans ready to assume their responsibilities in a Kosovo outcome?

KV: Yes and no. Yes, the U.S. and Europe are backing the UN plan (charted by Finnish Marrti Ahtisaari), which calls for supervised independence in Kosovo. There have been tough discussions in the EU: Some countries have not been fully convinced that this is the right path. But we have done a lot of advance planning the institutions called for in the plan.

Russia says it is not going to accept any outcome that provides independence, no UN Security Council resolution [that paves the way for that outcome]. Where we and the Europeans need to work now [is what to do in the event of a deadlock]. What do we do if we cannot get results in the Security Council? Right now I think Europe is frozen on that question. Europeans know that Kosovo cannot be reintegrated into Serbia. They know that you cannot have a permanent UN Protectorate in Kosovo. They know the Kosovar-Albanians will not be patient with an uncertain outcome forever. They know it is their own interest to see the Balkans stabilized. Yet if the process is blocked by Russia in the Security Council, these governments are not sure what to do. We need to say to ourselves that at a certain point we may need to just act. It is not our goal: We need to work the UN, we need to work Russia. But at the end of the day it is our own security, our own personnel on the ground, our own long-term interests that are at stake.

EA: Is there a timeframe on this?

KV: There is. It is not fixed in stone right now. The timeframe involves a transition period of 120 days from a Security Resolution. At the end of that, if the parties do not agree, we would implement the Ahtisaari plan, which is a supervised independence. We have some flexibility: those four months of transition, I suppose, could slip to six months. But we would have to be sure that whatever we were trading in time we would be gaining in certainty. It is the political hesitation right now, the political uncertainty, which has got us into the position we are in.

EA: Is this based on European concerns about setting a precedent for separatism? Or is there fear caused by intimidation by Russia?

KV: Separatism is a big thing for the Europeans because everyone has their own region somewhere, that they do not want to set “look-at-Kosovo” as a precedent. They also do not want to set a precedent that might be exploited by Russia vis-à-vis Abkhazia or South Ossetia or Transnistria. We believe Kosovo is a fundamentally different situation, so we do not see a precedent being set. But people do worry about how that is managed. And they worry about the legality. There is a strong European attachment to rule of law internationally and they say only the Security Council can sanction that. When they say that, they are really tying themselves to Russian policy.

EA: I know Iraq is not the bailiwick of the European bureau, but, because of NATO, Afghanistan is. How is the coalition doing? Are Europeans feeling tempted to scale back? Would it help in European eyes if the U.S. backed moves to put all American forces there under NATO?

KV: [We have come a long way since NATO went into Afghanistan in 2003.] We have 37,000 troops under NATO command in Afghanistan now. They are all over the country. Some are fighting hard in the south, where the Taliban is staging attacks. That includes NATO forces like the Canadians, the Estonians, the Danes, the British, the Dutch, and non-NATO countries like the Australians. So there is a tough contingent there in the south, and NATO forces throughout the country, including substantial numbers of Spaniards, Italians and Germans. The French are there. So the picture overall is pretty good. But NATO is operating close to the edge in some ways. There is a need for some more troops, particularly maneuver troops who can go to a crisis. We need trainers who can embed with Afghan police and military. We obviously need more reconstruction and development assistance.

One of the things that NATO needs to do a better job at, and European countries in general need to do a better job at, is seeing the linkage between hard military work and civilian development. Everyone wants to do humanitarian work. Everyone wants to build schools. But building a school will not do anything if you cannot protect it from the Taliban that want to blow it up.

EA: Where do efforts to eradicate the poppy production come in?

KV: This is an Afghan government lead. They have a poppy-eradication plan and the U.S. has a national program to support them. NATO’s job is to provide security so people can get on with that. NATO troops are not going to stand there in a field and do it, but they will provide security for the people that do. We have not had as much success in this as we need. Eradication numbers are up but so are production numbers, with some bumper crops. It is regional: most of the stuff comes from two or three provinces. In other parts of the country, with development projects, people are finding jobs and building an economy. Poppy production is concentrated in less secure areas where it is harder to do development [and alternative crops]. The population there is under tremendous pressure from the Taliban, the drug money flows back to the Taliban. Development is crucial: As a general in Afghanistan famously said, the Taliban starts where the road ends. Poppies too. They are a terrific crop in terms of durability and exportability: you mash it down into a paste, you do not have to preserve it, and you can transport it easily. With fruit, you need a truck and a road. Building roads and other infrastructure is crucial. Generally speaking, Afghani and Islamic culture and traditions do not like drug production, so you have a basis of community resistance. But you need to be empowering local communities.

EA: What about putting the U.S. combat teams – Operation Enduring Freedom – under NATO command?

KV: Not now. Maybe some day. Right now, our allies do not want that. They view the role that Operation Enduring Freedom plays as too hard-core combat for them to feel comfortable including it in the NATO mission. We feel that the combat role is essential given the security environment. And we would not want forces doing that to be encumbered by alliance decision-making and structures. So it is a mutual interest of the U.S. and the allies not to have these merged right now. If the security situation improves to the degree that you can get closer to a Bosnia or a Kosovo model, then putting everything under NATO is certainly the best way to do it – a much more efficient way.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 2-3 in the Summer/Fall of 2007.