U.S. Foreign Policy: Responsible Leadership, Strong Partnerships, and New Challenges


Many thanks to Vice-Rector Nuno Guimarães and to Professor Luís Nuno Rodrigues. I was going to make a few remarks in Portuguese to begin this speech, and although that would make my Portuguese instructor very proud, I’d better stick to English, before I get myself into any trouble.

It is an honor to speak to you all today. I am continually impressed by the quality of the education at Portugal’s universities, which ranks among the highest in the world. ISCTE is a top class university, and an example of Portugal’s best. Its faculty and graduates are well connected within Portuguese society and help shape the political and economic debate within Portugal. I am also proud to say that the U.S. Embassy and ISCTE form an ongoing and productive partnership in many programs, such as the women’s entrepreneurship initiative called Connect to Success.

President Obama has said: “My first duty as Commander-in-Chief is to defend the United States of America. In doing so, the question is not whether America leads the world, but how.”

I’m here to talk about leadership – American leadership. No matter how pressing the domestic agenda, regardless of how partisan the domestic politics, the United States of America does not shrink from its international obligations. I would ask you to look no further, whether the United States provides leadership. For, when trouble occurs nearly anywhere in the world, the call for help does not go to London, or Brussels, or Berlin, or Beijing. The call goes to Washington.

But the responsibility to lead also requires us to lead responsibly. Such responsible stewardship has delivered great victories not only to the United States but to individuals the world over. Fallen enemies include the Nazi regime, polio and smallpox, and the myths man could not beat the speed of sound or put footprints on the moon. Americans have always risen to the challenge. But the world has become increasingly more complex, and ever-changing. Countries can no longer avoid the world’s problems by retreating within their borders. And the world community cannot simply be divided into “good” and “evil” when looking to create alliances.

By way of example as to that last point, we can sanction President Putin for his lawless actions in the Ukraine, but Russia is a key participant in the P5+1 talks dedicated to stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Iran has been a state sponsor of terrorism but we share a common objective with respect to defeating ISIL (also known as “DAESH”).

So while modern day threats test our security, our values and our way of life, so too these challenges require modern solutions. America is not hesitant to lead, but we have to lead smarter. America can’t simply go it alone in addressing the world’s problems, and that can no longer be the world’s expectation. Smart leadership means not simply relying on old friends but looking for opportunities to find new allies. Our best chance of defeating the serious crises we face comes from forming alliances within the world community on issues of common interest, thereby standing as a united force, while leveraging all our combined strengths – military and diplomatic.

Nevertheless, we also understand that when America engages around the world, our partners of first choice are right here in Europe. That is because we share a common history and common values, like our mutual commitment to tolerance, freedom of speech and human rights.

When we turn our sights toward global security crises, the magnitude of those crises seems overwhelming. Let’s start right here in Europe, where, in the words of former presidential candidate John McCain, “a revisionist Russia invaded and annexed the territory of a sovereign European state; the first time this has occurred since the time of Stalin and Hitler.” The headlines from eastern Ukraine seem to worsen by the day, as Russian-backed separatists widen their offensive and even target civilian populations. In a united response, the U.S. and its European allies are upholding the principle that larger nations cannot bully the small. Together, we are opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukrainian democracy, reaffirming the importance of our NATO alliance, and respecting the aspirations of those desiring to draw nearer to it.

We were pleased when the OSCE — supported by leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France — reached an agreement on a ceasefire and heavy weapons withdrawal in eastern Ukraine, and on the implementation of the September Minsk agreements. Yet, the Russian military participated in the recent attacks on Vuhlehirsk and Debaltseve. Russia continues to supply and train separatist militants, and has put in place a robust command structure in eastern Ukraine. Russia has transferred hundreds of pieces of military equipment to pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine, including tanks, armored vehicles, rocket systems, heavy artillery, and other military equipment. The separatist movement at this point is a de facto extension of the Russian military and an instrument of Russian national power.

There are reports that Russian-backed separatists have prevented access for members of the special monitoring mission and even made grave threats against them. So, we have seen continued behavior that is in direct violation of the agreement that Russia itself signed just a couple of weeks ago.

It is clear that we must measure the commitment of Russia and the separatists by their actions, not by their words. We must maintain U.S.-EU joint support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including the rejection of the occupation of Crimea. We must maintain sanctions, so that Russia will understand that if it continues to disregard the Minsk Implementation Plan, it will incur severe costs. We continue to call on all signatories to carry out the commitments undertaken in the plan in the September Minsk Agreements fully and without delay.

Turning south, a brutal strain of radical Islamism has infected wide swaths of Iraq and Syria. In response, the United States is now leading a coalition of some 60 nations determined not only to counter ISIL, but the hate-spewing ideology that underpins it. Military power, primarily airstrikes, has helped to stall the insurgents’ advance.

Coalition partners agree, however, that a military response represents but one element in winning the fight and therefore are pursuing several concurrent lines of effort. These include: providing security assistance to the Iraqi military; disrupting the flow of foreign fighters to the region; targeting ISIL’s financing sources; and attending to the humanitarian catastrophe that its terrorism has spawned.

With the shared goal of defeating violent extremism, representatives from 60 countries, as well as civil society groups and local leaders, met just over a week ago in Washington with President Obama, to exchange ideas and best practices for empowering community leaders and institutions to confront this challenge. The message of the summit was that military power alone is not enough to defeat extremists – comprehensive rule of law and community-based strategies are an essential part of what has to be a global effort to counter violent extremism.

Just two months ago, a solemn ceremony in Kabul marked the end of the International Security and Assistance Force (known as ISAF) combat mission in Afghanistan. Over thirteen years have passed since the gruesome attacks on September 11 ushered in the war in Afghanistan, and 2,200 Americans paid the ultimate price in fighting that conflict – our country’s longest.
ISAF’s successes were numerous and noteworthy: devastating the core of al-Qaeda leadership, disrupting terrorist plots, and delivering justice to Osama bin Laden. Our nations are safer and more secure as a result.

But, Afghanistan remains a dangerous place, and the Afghan people and their security forces continue to make sacrifices in defense of their country. At the invitation of the Afghan government and to preserve the gains we have made together, the United States – along with our allies and partners – will maintain a limited military presence in Afghanistan to train, advise and assist Afghan forces and to conduct counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al-Qaeda. Our personnel will continue to face risks to their safety, but this reflects the enduring commitment of the United States and NATO to the Afghan people and to a united, secure and sovereign Afghanistan that is never again used as a source of attacks against our nations.

These security challenges are traditional, in the sense they come from an identifiable nation or region, and their solutions lie there as well. Twenty-first century threats rarely confine themselves to limited spaces, however, crossing national borders and even oceans with ease.

The January 7 attack in Paris, subsequent police actions in Brussels and Athens, an attack in Copenhagen, and the bombing a couple of years ago in my hometown of Boston, serve to remind us the battle against terrorism is not limited to the Middle East but threatens us all– Europe and the rest of the West as well. Whether the threat is al-Qaeda, ISIL, or Boko Haram in Nigeria, the solution is clear: we must stand together against those who threaten our values and our way of life.

When the freedoms that we treasure came under brutal attack in Paris, the world responded with one voice – Je Suis Charlie. Along with our French allies, we have made clear to those who think they can muzzle freedom of expression with violence that our voices will grow in unison and grow louder.

The United States and its partners will continue to target terrorists and dismantle their networks. The effort will take time, and require focus. But we will succeed.

We also live in an increasingly digitalized world, and our computer and telecommunications infrastructure are every bit as vital – and equally as vulnerable – as our power lines, pipelines, and water systems. Today our countries are susceptible to destructive attacks from states or organizations that otherwise could not threaten us militarily.

Our response must be multi-modal. High technology, advanced processes, and greater awareness can reduce the cyber threat. Industry and even the average person must do their part. But so too must state actors.

Two months ago, my government witnessed cyber-attacks on Sony Pictures Entertainment and subsequent threats against theaters and movie-goers, attributed to North Korea. In response to these provocations, President Obama signed an order authorizing the imposition of additional sanctions against the Government of North Korea, the Workers Party of Korea, and individuals benefitting from access to those entities. Deeply concerned over the economically destructive nature of this state-sponsored cyber-attack targeting a commercial entity and its employees, we are urging like-minded states to enact similar sanctions.

Just as computer viruses can crisscross the world, metastasizing and growing fiercer, so too can those that attack the human body. We are witnessing today the devastating impact of the current Ebola crisis in West Africa — clear evidence that the world is far from fully prepared for large-scale health emergencies.

Ebola, as well as recent outbreaks of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and H7N9 influenza, demonstrate the impact that public health emergencies have on the health and livelihoods of individuals, the economic growth of communities, and even on international security. To ensure we are better prepared in the future, we need to take action now, while the world, together and collectively, is focused on global health.

In February of last year, the United States launched the Global Health Security Agenda to accelerate progress toward a world safe and secure from infectious disease threats, and to promote global health security as an international security priority. The agenda will serve as a major platform to fill gaps in global capacity in addressing infectious disease threats. And I am proud to note that in West Africa, our troops, our doctors and nurses, and our aid workers are rolling back Ebola and saving thousands of lives.

Ukraine, ISIL, Ebola… one could think that we’re in an irreversible downward trend. But just as every cloud has a silver lining and every action imparts a reaction, I see hopeful opportunities as well as threats when I awake every day.

Mid-December saw our President’s announcement of a thawing of relations with Cuba. I won’t forget the moment I received the news – we were stopped in a highway rest stop in northern Portugal while on a “road show” to promote the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. We had to scramble with our Blackberries and iPhones to obtain the information we needed from Washington to respond to a flurry of media inquiries on the momentous policy swing.

President Obama’s decision to begin normalizing relations with Cuba will advance U.S. interests and those of the long-suffering Cuban population. Eleven million souls have waited too long to fulfill their democratic aspirations and build closer ties with the rest of the world. Our new Cuba tack reflects the reality that past policies, no matter how well intentioned, no longer suited today’s situation.

Albert Einstein recognized nearly a half-century ago when he said that it was not rational to continue doing the same thing and expect a different result. I can assure, however, that our actions will include continued strong support for human rights, civil society, and democratic reforms in Cuba.

Iran represents another opportunity for lasting, meaningful change. For the first time in a decade, the United States, working hand-in-hand with Security Council partners, Germany, and the European Union, has succeeded in halting progress in that country’s nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material.

Over the next 90 days or so, we have the chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran, and secures Europe, America, and Israel. There are no guarantees the negotiations will succeed, of course, and the President is keeping his options open. But responsible leadership requires us to try. There is no good second alternative.

One way to lessen our negotiating position would be for governments the world over to take actions that give the impression Iran is “open for business.” Both the United States and the EU are committed to vigorously implementing existing sanctions on Iran until we have a comprehensive agreement on its nuclear program. A united U.S.-EU stance is critical to maintaining the integrity of the sanctions regime, and the private sector must proceed with great restraint and caution in its activities. Iran most definitely is not yet “open for business.”

Fourteen of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred this century. It is clear that human activity is changing the climate. If the nations of the world don’t take concerted action soon, we will continue to see rising seas, dangerous droughts, and greater temperature extremes.

Competition for scarce resources will drive migration and stoke conflict around the globe – one need to look no further than the Pentagon’s analysis, which argues climate change poses immediate threats to international security. Yet there are reasons to be optimistic. In changing the way it produces and consumes energy, the United States has made great strides the last half-decade. We announced in Beijing our intention to double the pace at which we cut carbon emissions. And you know what happened? We formed a new alliance. China responded by committing to limit its own outputs.

With the globe’s two largest economies now collaborating, other nations are following up. We thus approach the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December with great expectations to, in the words of my president, “protect the one world we’ve got.”

Another opportunity lies on the economic security front. It is in the strategic interests of the United States to have our European partners economically strong. Why is that? It is because it used to be that we measured the influence of a country by the size of its army; now we measure it by the strength of its economy.

As our world changes rapidly, adapting to the dynamics of emerging markets, rising powers, and new technologies, it is the United States and the EU who should be the ones to set the rules of the road, building on a common set of values. Tearing down the barriers to trade and investment – tariffs, duplicative regulatory schemes and uncertainty over product requirements, is a common-sense way to more easily connect European entrepreneurs to U.S. consumers, and vice versa.

We recently completed the eighth round of negotiations of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or T-TIP, and are on our way to formulating a historic agreement that will unlock opportunities that support jobs, and fuel economic growth on both sides of the Atlantic. And Portugal will be a major beneficiary of that agreement.

Building a stronger economic partnership between the United States and the EU will modernize our alliance and make it more secure. The world is safer when advanced democracies stand together.

Portugal has been and remains a key ally of the United States in the endeavor to keep the world safe. Americans and Portuguese continue to stand shoulder-to- shoulder in Afghanistan since the inception of the ISAF mission.

Portugal is also an important member of the coalition to defeat ISIL. Portugal stands with the United States in condemning Russia’s aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, providing financial assistance to Kyiv via a NATO trust fund for military career transition. And last year, Portugal deployed a bolstered Baltic Air Policing mission to Lithuania that helped reassure front-line NATO states of the Alliance’s commitment against destabilizing Russian activities.

But in order to keep America safe and help keep the world safe, we in the United States also recognize that our military needs to be nimble and flexible to respond to threats as they exist in the 21st century. Meanwhile, defense budgets in America like Europe are under pressure to do more with less. Regarding the expected economic consequences of the decision, we are not insensitive to the issue. In our planning we focused on retaining the maximum number of local nationals, reducing a larger percentage of U.S. forces. We are engaged in discussions on a wide range of economic mitigation activities and have made clear our willingness to partner with the Central Government and the Regional Government of the Azores to help spur economic development and job creation there.

Two weeks ago, a delegation of over 20 U.S. policy- makers from various agencies, and the White House – indeed the largest and most impressive delegation of senior U.S. officials ever – came to Portugal for the 33rd Standing Bilateral Commission meetings. We engaged on a broad agenda of military, economic, political, law enforcement, and cultural ties. The Commission focused on increasing bilateral trade and investment, increased military training and engagement, fostering innovation, facilitating educational exchanges, and developing cooperation in science, technology, energy, and the environment.

One new joint initiative being explored is the establishment under Portuguese leadership of a Center for Maritime Security in the Gulf of Guinea. Based in Lisbon, the Center would provide analysis and proposed courses of action concerning the most pressing challenges affecting this region. This initiative recognizes Portuguese expertise in that region and our resolve to work together to counter these threats to our security.

Cooperation between our countries is growing in cyberspace as well. With our key partners, like Portugal, the United States is crafting an approach to cyber defense that deters interference and attack in cyberspace by improving warning capabilities, articulat¬ing roles for the private sector, and developing appropriate responses for both state and non-state actors.
So, with so many examples of forward-looking bilateral collaboration, it is clear that rather than retrenching from our strategic alliance with Portugal, we are expanding it.

How then do we define U.S. foreign policy? As President Obama said during his last State of the Union address: “Looking to the future instead of the past. Making sure we match our power with diplomacy, and use force wisely. Building coalitions to meet new challenges and opportunities and leading – always – with the example of our values.”

More than ever, the world needs American leadership. And America must have willing partners because only by acting together can we successfully address the needs of the world.