Transcript

Remarks by Secretary Esper at the German Marshall Fund, Brussels, Belgium

Oct. 24, 2019
Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper

MODERATOR: It's really a great pleasure to welcome you this morning to this conversation with U.S. Secretary of Defense Esper. Thank you very much for being with us here today.

For those of you who know us, and maybe those of you who don't know us so well, just to say our mission is very simply to strengthen trans-Atlantic cooperation in the spirit of the Marshall Plan. And cooperation on trans-Atlantic security and NATO policy are absolutely at the heart of that mission and, I think you'll agree with me, more relevant than ever.

And as always, the U.S. approach to security and thinking about defense policy and alliance partnerships is a hot topic in Brussels, and is of keen interest.  So, we're especially delighted that Secretary Esper has taken the time from a very busy schedule here at NATO to be with us today.

Let me also, just at the outset, thank our friends at the U.S. Mission to NATO for their partnership on this event and our work throughout the year.  Ambassador Hutchison, thank you very, very much indeed.  Our cooperation, in fact, with all three missions here in Brussels is really integral to what we do and we're very grateful for that.

Dr. Esper comes to his role as Secretary of Defense after a distinguished career in the U.S. military, on Capitol Hill, in the public sector and policy sector, the private sector.  Most recently has served as Secretary of the Army, later as Acting Secretary of defense, and was sworn in as the 27th U.S. Secretary of Defense in July of this year.

Now, Mr. Secretary, welcome to GMF.  Thanks for being with us.  We look forward to your remarks.

Please join me in welcoming him.

(APPLAUSE)

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER:  Well, good morning, everyone.

And Ian, thank you for that kind introduction.

Ian and I were talking a little bit beforehand and we -- I shared with him my many fond experiences working with the GMF in D.C., and we have a lot of mutual friends.  And so, it's just been a good experience I've had during my 20-plus years in the capital and, again, working with organizations such as German Marshall Fund.  You do great work.

But it is great to be here in Brussels at the German Marshall Fund here, an institution named after a great leader and a historic development program.

Behind my desk at the Pentagon hangs a portrait of George Marshall taken when he was General of the Army in 1945.  I have longed admired Marshall for his bold ideas and the courage to advance them.

He's considered by many in the military as the greatest general officer of his time.  And he and I -- he and I are also from the same hometown, so that may also have something to do with the fact that I'm such a big fan.

I just came from the Middle East, where I spent a few days with our commanders and troops in the field, and met with our international partners in Afghanistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.  At each stop, I was encouraged by much of what I saw and what I heard.

In Afghanistan, the Resolute Support train, advise and assist mission continues to improve the capability of the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces.  Their ability to maintain security during the recent elections was a good indication of the progress that they've made.

In Saudi Arabia, we continue to reinforce our partners with additional aircraft, air and missile defense systems, and other defensive assets.  We urge our allies in Europe to follow our lead and contribute their own support to help deter Iranian aggression, to promote stability in the region and defend the international rules-based order.

And in Iraq, where I just came from yesterday, the Defeat-ISIS Coalition continues to support the Iraqis and their efforts to ensure the lasting defeat of that terrorist organization.

Despite these positive signs, however, threats to the security and stability of the Middle East still abound.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban's unwillingness to stop their senseless attacks on innocent civilians set back negotiations to establish peace.

Iran's continued malign behavior throughout the Middle East, to include its recent attacks on the Saudi Aramco oil facilities, presents a persistent threat to our partners in the region.

And Turkey's unwarranted incursion into northern Syria jeopardizes the gains made there in recent years.

It is clear there is still a long way to go to achieve peace and stability in that part of the world.  In fact, the numerous security challenges today have the potential to consume our time, to sap our resources, and to dominate our focus.

The commencement this month of our 19th consecutive year of conflict in Afghanistan is just a reminder of just how difficult it is to end a war.

As we continue our efforts around the world to protect the homeland, to help defend our allies and partners, and safeguard our interests, we must do so with an eye to the future.  New threats are on the horizon that we ignore at our own peril.

Meeting these challenges requires us to contend with today’s foes while simultaneously preparing for tomorrow’s potential adversaries -- before it’s too late.

The world around us is changing at a pace faster than ever before. New technologies have emerged that could dramatically alter the character of warfare.  Advancements in fields such as artificial intelligence, hypersonic weapons and directed energy are increasing the lethality of modern weapon systems and expanding the geometry of the battlefield.

Staging areas for troops, aircraft and ships safely removed from the effects of enemy weapons in the past are now within range of modern missile systems.  Satellites that transmit vital communications and positioning data miles overhead are increasingly vulnerable to attack. And military bases used as power projection platforms are exposed to cyber threats that aim to disrupt infrastructure needed to deploy forces.

In the future, wars will be fought not just on the land and on the sea, as they have for thousands of years, or in the air, as they have for the past century, but also in outer space and cyberspace in unprecedented ways.

Preparing for this type of warfare requires a renewed focus on high-intensity conflict, it requires continued alliance on allies and partners, and it requires the foresight to expand our warfighting capabilities across all five of these domains.

The United States National Defense Strategy remains the department's guidepost as we adapt the force to this new environment.  The NDS prioritizes China first, Russia second, as we transition our primary focus towards great power competition.

It is increasing -- increasingly clear that Beijing and Moscow wish to reshape the world to their favor at the expense of others.  Through predatory economics, political subversion and military force, they seek to erode the sovereignty of weaker states.  Over time, this activity is undermining the current international rules-based order that generations before us worked so hard to achieve.

It is quite fitting that this very institution where we gather this morning was first established to commemorate the strategy that helped create this order.  The Marshall Plan, along with other post-World War II initiatives, was grounded in a common set of principles, such as democracy, freedom, human rights, national sovereignty and free trade.

The international system that followed has long served as the foundation for our security and our prosperity. But today, China and Russia, nations with a view of the world very different than our own, are using their power to coercively alter the strategic environment, and they're doing so in a way that uses this system against us.

Throughout my travels in my first three months as Secretary of Defense, I've heard firsthand from allies and partners around the world about the damage that's being done.

China's One Belt, One Road initiative has left several nations with unsustainable debt, forcing them to trade sovereignty for financial relief.  Even developed nations fear China's growing leverage, which not only impacts their economic and political decisions but, perhaps worse, leads them to make suboptimal security choices.

I would caution my friends in Europe against adopting the mindset that American concerns about Chinese economic and military expansion are overstated or not relevant to their national security.  The PRC's influence is rapidly expanding as it continues to pursue new partners well beyond the region.  Our security must not be diminished by a short and narrow-sighted focus on economic opportunity.

The United States is not asking nations to choose between China and the rest of the world, but we are asking them to pursue a future that supports democracy, that enables economic prosperity, and that protects human rights.

All countries must enter their relationship with the PRC with eyes wide open.  China's state-sponsored theft of intellectual property, its militarization of the South China Sea and its mistreatment of ethnic minorities are all clear examples of Beijing's unwillingness to abide by international rules and norms.  The ongoing protests in Hong Kong are a consequence of Beijing's gradual erosion of the rights guaranteed under the One Country, Two Systems agreement in 1997.

In a world dominated by China, these actions by the state, regrettably, would constitute acceptable behavior.

Similarly, Russia's foreign policy demonstrates a blatant disregard for state sovereignty.  In addition to their military incursions in Georgia and Ukraine, their use of cyber warfare and information operations continues to interfere with other states' domestic affairs.

In the case of both China and Russia, their malign behavior, combined with aggressive military modernization programs, puts the international security environment on a trajectory that should concern all free nations.

Over the next two days, as I meet with our NATO allies here in Brussels my message will be clear.

First, the United States commitment to NATO and Article 5 is iron-clad.  However, for the alliance to remain strong, every member -- every member must contribute its fair share to ensure our mutual security and uphold the international rules-based order.

This means not only contributing to the important NATO security missions around the world today, but also making sufficient investments towards the capabilities needed to deter our potential adversaries tomorrow.

In 2014, all 28 NATO allies made a commitment to the defense spending goal of 2% of GDP by 2024.  However, only eight nations have so far achieved this important milestone.  Just over half of the allies are currently on track to reach this level of defense spending.  I commend them for meeting their obligation on time.  But a number of other NATO members are, unfortunately, falling short.

Cumulatively, allies plan $100 million in defense spending increases through the next year. A lot of money, but as we all agreed, we can, must and will do more.

Anticipating our Leaders Meeting in December, I urge all allies that do not yet have a credible plan to implement the Wales Defense investment plan to develop one soon.  There can be no free riders for our shared security. Regardless of geographic location, size or population, all must do their part to help deter war and defend the alliance.  We're only as strong as the investments we are willing to make towards our common defense.

In terms of readiness, I'm encouraged by the progress allies are making.  We are close to our goal of the Four 30s by 2020.  As our leaders agreed when they adopted the NATO Readiness Initiative, having the addition of 30 air squadrons, 30 combat vessels and 30 mechanized battalions ready to fight in 30 days or less is a critical first step to re-instilling a culture of readiness in the alliance. I expect that by the NATO Leaders Meeting in December, we will have 100% of these important contributions identified.

Together, we all have an obligation to prepare for the challenges of the future, even as we manage the security issues of the present.  The international order constructed following World War II benefited the entire world.  Initiatives like the Marshall Plan helped to rebuild the continent, restore political order and bring about economic prosperity following a time of great destruction.

That order has largely remained intact, but there is no inherent permanence to its design.  Our potential adversaries seek to weaken the integrity of these institutions and incrementally reshape the international system. Should we remain complacent and fail to recognize the shifting landscape, we risk inviting greater aggression and further challenges to our shared values and security.

Defending this system and deterring this aggression remains my primary task, and we can only do this by working closely together to maintain a ready, capable alliance that's prepared to fight when ready. I am confident that we will be successful in doing so if we fully commit to this task and lead our citizens toward this goal.

I appreciate your time this morning and I look forward to your questions. Thank you all very much.

(APPLAUSE)

MODERATOR:  Mr. Secretary, thank you very, very much for your remarks. You've given us a lot to think about, talk about.

Just to give you all a little bit of a roadmap of what we're planning here today, we're going to have a little bit of a conversation here and then we'll save about 15 minutes at the end for as well.

So maybe I could just start by asking you this. I mean, you were very clear about -- in several ways in your remarks about the need to refocus on the security requirements flowing from increased great power competitions, especially China and Russia.

Maybe if you could say just a little bit more about the, sort of, nuclear/conventional balance, because there's a lot of debate now about nuclear forces, nuclear doctrines becoming more prominent than in the past. Of course, that's affecting the arms control regimes and other things -- both in Russia and also in China. Maybe you could say a few words about that.

SEC. ESPER:  I think if you look at both countries, you see, at least in China, a modernization and expansion of their nuclear arsenal in what we would call the triad, in terms of air, land and sea forces. And clearly with Russia, they are modernizing and developing new weapons when it comes to nuclear capability, and we see reports about that, we know about that. And those are the systems that, as we consider arms control, we’ve got to make sure we capture those systems.

And with regard to Russia, we also have to be clear that for many years going outside the realm of arms control -- and I know this, because I personally negotiated with the Russians back in 2002 and 2003 in Geneva -- they have found some nonstrategic nuclear weapons that also threatened -- threatened the peace that directly would impact Europe.

And so I think as we think about arms control, we need to think about the whole basket, if you will, of nuclear weapons that should be considered as we approach the agreements.

MODERATOR:  And can we deal with that challenge as a matter of the state?  They're both as a matter of our conventional posture in Europe, or if we need to start thinking about changes in our arms or our nuclear posture here and development.

SEC. ESPER:  Well, the United States is modernizing its nuclear triad as well.  We have multiple programs, an array of regional staff to make sure that we have a capable strategic deterrent.  It is the bedrock of our national security.  Of course, we extend that nuclear umbrella to other countries.

And so, for us, we need to do that.  I think, as well, for European partners, that should be considered also in terms of those that that have the nuclear forces.

It's critical to modernizing, not because we want a nuclear conflict; lord knows nobody does. But it has deterred and kept the peace now since the end of World War II in terms of great power conflict, and so I think that's important.

And we've got to consider arms control and the appropriate role of arms control in that context, also.

MODERATOR:  Mr. Secretary, you talked in different ways about burden-sharing; of course, it's a hot potato on both sides of the Atlantic in terms of defense spending, but also in other respects. And I'm wondering if you could say a word or two about how do you see the recent initiatives within the European Union, to do more as Europe on this, both from the point of view of U.S. strategic interests, but also the defense-industrial relationship across the globe.

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, well I think, you know, we all have a commitment, as I just said in my remarks, to defend the international rules-based order that we all built, particularly the United States and Europe after World War II, and it's served us all incredibly well.  And we maintain it, but it's fragile.  And we, the United States, see it under threat these days when we look at some of the activities, particularly by China.

So I think the degree that we all accept the fact that we need to really reconsider security in a different light because we need to burden-share across the board, whether it's increased defense spending or it's participating in more missions, it is providing host nation support in the case of the United States in some places.  All those things have to be put back on the table.

And I know, you know, domestic populations wants to spend money elsewhere, and I understand that.  We have those same issues in the United States.  But the fact is, our security has to come first.  Without our security, we can't have economic prosperity and vice-versa as well.  So I think it's what we all need to consider.

And we should also, at the same time, maintain the good transatlantic relationship we've had with regard to the openness of our markets when it comes to defense sales -- because it's critical that we are able to tap into the best of what all of our allies can provide and present when it comes to purchasing of arms, security, et cetera.

MODERATOR:  Do you think it's going in the right direction here in that regard?  Obviously Europe is much more focused on -- at least now, through things like PESCO.  Or does it risk being incompatible with what we and NATO would like to do?

SEC. ESPER:  There are a lot of concerns by the United States and our other non-E.U. partners about the direction of PESCO and that it may foreclose the opportunity in the United States, our companies that can participate in that regime, if you will.  And that can concern us.  We think it's heading in the wrong direction.

Again, we think the marketplace should be kept open, that we should continue to collaborate and cooperate with one another, and that's our view.  Is keep that market open, if you will, so that we can optimize our security needs.

MODERATOR:  If I could ask you, you've just come back from Afghanistan, among other places.  Talk a little bit about how you see the security situation there today, and what we'll be able to do in terms of, well, an exit – President Trump has been very clear about his desire to see an exit in Afghanistan and elsewhere.  How do you see this evolving, and then what it would mean for us but also for our neighbor partners present with us?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, I think I had a great visit there for a couple days; and I had a chance to meet with the Resolute Support mission commanders; with many of the soldiers and many of our allied soldiers that were -- and leaders who are on the ground there; and had a chance to meet with President Ghani and his national security team.

 You know, from what I've seen -- and it's not my first trip to Afghanistan, I've been there several times, going all the way back to 2001.  And so I've seen great progress in the country. The performance of the ANDSF has been wonderful. I had chance to, you know, view an exercise by some of their commandos and talk to some of their soldiers.  They are committed to the defense of their country.  They showed great strength and pride in having a relatively violence free election, if you will.  And so I think we need to continue along that path.

The United States mission there remains unchanged.  And that mission is -- it's not just the United States, it's all of our NATO partners and others who are there -- is to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists to strike our homelands.  And that is our commitment to the mission, irrespective of how we optimize our force over time.

But I think that's our mission, we're committed to doing that and I -- you know, I reassured our Afghan partners of that as well.

MODERATOR:  You also, on this trip, were in Saudi Arabia.  I wonder if you could say a little about, you know, your impressions from that, what you saw there, what we're committed to doing, in your view with the Saudis now (inaudible)?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, there's a lot of concern in Saudi Arabia and in other GCC states about Iran's behavior.  It's 40 years of malign behavior throughout the region, all the way from Africa, all the way across in Afghanistan and further, where they are sponsoring terrorist groups like Hezbollah; they're supplying arms to their proxies in Yemen; they have pursued a nuclear program, long-range missile program.

I mean, they're all quite concerned about the path of Iran at this point.  And we're concerned, not just because many of our partners are there and U.S. forces there, but also because, once again, they are challenging the international rules-based order that we agree was what ensures prosperity and security.

They threatened the free flow of commerce throughout the Strait of Hormuz, they've attacked vessels, tankers in the strait.  And so our commitment to the Saudis and to other states in the region is to make sure we help defend our partners.  Number two, we defend that free flow of assets.  And, third, that we, again, get Tehran to recognize the international rules-based order and obey it.

We are not seeking conflict with Iran.  That would not be good for anyone.  But at the same time, my message to Tehran, do not restrict -- do not miscalculate, do not mistake the United States' restraint for weakness because we will act, if need be, as need be.

But at the same time, I think this -- this is another case where the burden cannot be shouldered by the United States alone.  We all have an interest in preserving the rules-based order, security of the region.  And so I've had conversations with many of our NATO allies, and I've urged them to meet and consider bringing additional air defense assets, defensive assets, if you will, to Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries so we can defend and -- help defend the system.

But we had a very good meeting the other day, by several chiefs of defense in Saudi Arabia.  Many of our NATO allies participated, and I'm hopeful that we can – get some serious and credible commitments coming out of there.  And, again, collectively try and defend -- defend the region, ensure security.

MODERATOR:  As we, as others, focus more on China and Russia, some of these big picture, longer-term, higher intensity sort of challenges, how do you think about our traditional presence in the Middle East?  I mean, what have you been hearing from allies?  How you see where we should be in the years to come in terms of our own presence in the region?

Yes, there are some very (inaudible) challenges with Iran at the moment, but over the longer term, is this going to be a place that the U.S. is still engaged? There's a lot of debate about that in this town.

SEC. ESPER:  Well, the region is not static.  You know, my -- my first visit to the region was for the Gulf War, where I fought with the U.S. Army in 1990-'91.  And it's changed in many ways since then.  It's been nearly 30 years now.

And so we have to adapt to the change that happens.  Certainly, 30 years ago, we didn't face the threat of violent extremist organizations like we do today.  Nobody -- there was no al-Qaida; there was no ISIS; there -- there wasn't any of that, and now it's -- the region's consumed by it.

And I think many of the leaders in the region -- and I've spoken with several -- understand that this is a threat that this is a part of of their generation.  And so we have to deal with that.  And -- and we have our partners in the region, which are going to stand by as well.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't optimize our force, adjust our force.  Lord knows we've expanded and contracted over time in different parts.  We've expanded and contracted over time here in Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union.  That's just the -- the normal course of defense planning.

As we look ahead, and my job is to look into the future.  And as I look in the future, the concern I have -- and it's been -- it was my predecessor, Secretary Jim Mattis, who actually drafted the National Defense Strategy -- said that China is going to be a long-term strategic challenge for us.  And when you look at the size of the country, their economic potential, their -- the -- they're focused on what -- China's advancements and their needs, that's what we all need to be concerned about as we head into the 2020s and beyond.

MODERATOR:  So as we re-focus in that direction, do you see an opportunity or a need for NATO, to be looking not just to the east, but actually doing more in the south? That's the perennial question, obviously, for the alliance.  But, you know, the American presence, our own posture is an important part of that -- do you see NATO taking up more of that, sort of, mission, looking south in terms of counterterrorism?

SEC. ESPER:  I think -- yes, I think NATO should be looking east toward China.  I think -- or West, depending on which way you look at it.

(Laughter.)

We -- we had a discussion on the first ministerial that I attended.  I was acting secretary then.  And we had good discussions.  And it's not just the security focus.  It has to be an economic focus.  Again, One Belt, One Road is -- is creeping its way into all parts of Europe.  Of course, we are well aware of the challenge, the threat of Huawei 5G.  And as I've, you know, counseled our NATO allies, for the United States, if Huawei becomes the provider of choice, if you will, it's going to seriously undermine our ability to share intelligence, our ability to inter-operate militarily, because we simply cannot trust those networks.

And in some cases, Chinese providers are witting and in some cases they're unwitting.  But those are just the threats that we need to work around to make sure we address them with eyes wide open.

MODERATOR:  Do you sense that there's a taste in NATO and elsewhere, I mean, as well as in the E.U. as well, to become more involved with a kind of joint strategy vis-a-vis China?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I think we're all coming late to the realization that China's been competing with us for some time.  I mean, I know the United States has been watching this problem for 20, 25 years, and even the United States has had a late recognition of the challenge that China's been presenting.

I -- you know, they've -- they've been stealing our intellectual property now for four long decades.  They've obviously been encroaching deeper in the South China Sea, seeking islands and doing all of these things.  And I know that, you know, the demonstrations in Hong Kong are another manifestation of Chinese tactics.

So I think, you know, Europe is coming -- is also coming around to recognizing the threat of China.  Maybe it's obscured by the fact that a more aggressive Russia is just at the doorstep, and you tend to look to threats right in front of you, as compared to the ones that are further distant.

But again, I think, in the long run -- in the long term, China is the far greater challenge that we face, not Russia.

MODERATOR:  Now, I want to open it up to all of you, and I'm sure there will be questions.  But before I do that, if I could maybe just ask you about Syria and about Turkey.

You know, we Europeans are mostly very clear about our views on the Turkish incursion in Syria.  How do you see this right now, given what has happened, given our own plans, given the -- what Turkey and Russia have been agreeing to, through the Assad regime, the Kurdish militias and so on, it's a very different situation than we faced just a few weeks ago -- or a week ago.

How do you see this evolving, and what should our strategy be in this regard?

SEC. ESPER:  Look, I've been very candid about this.  Turkey put us all in a very terrible situation.  I mean, I think -- I think the incursion was unwarranted.  I think President Erdogan was fixated on making this incursion, for one reason or another.  And there was not a possibility that we were going to start a war with a NATO ally, a NATO ally who has been a very good ally since it's joined the alliance in 1952, I think.

But I've also said that the direction of Turkey with regard to the alliance is heading in the wrong direction.  On any number of issues, we see them spinning closer to Russia’s orbit than in to -- to the Western orbit.  And I think that's unfortunate.  And I think we all need to work together to strengthen our partnership with Turkey and make sure they trend back to being the strong, reliable ally, responsible ally that they did in the past.

MODERATOR:  So beyond -- thinking beyond the Syria issue per se, with Turkey, both bilaterally and with NATO, I mean, what could -- what are the ways forward, though? We have a lot of issues, contentious issues, including the S-400 purchase and other things, and the Turks have their own complaints about us.  What's the way forward there?  Where are the opportunities to do more with Turkey...

SEC. ESPER:  I think those...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER:  I think those are the discussions that we need to have with -- you know, within the alliance and in our capitals on a bilateral and multilateral basis.  I don't have the solution today.  But I think we've got to keep working at it.  We've got to reach out to the right people within Turkey and continue to build those ties.

I will tell you, my experience both as a military officer and my current role, that the foundation of many relationships within the alliance begins at the military level.  So I think continuing to build those bonds between -- between the officer corps, between the organizations, between our defense personnel, is a great place to start.  We've got to maintain that and build for the long term.

We've -- you know, we've had -- we're in this bumpy period right now.  I think we need to play it for the long-term and we need to make sure that, again, all -- that -- that we get Turkey back on a different path.  It's been continuing to welcome new members from the alliance.

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much.

Let me open it up to all of you.  We don't have endless time.  We've got about 10 minutes, 15 minutes.  And just, you know, catch my eye and I'll try to acknowledge you.

Maybe I can start just right here on the aisle, just briefly.

Do, if you could, just tell us who you are and where you’re from.

Q:  Thank you.  I'm (inaudible) from the Spanish news agency (inaudible).

Back to Syria and Turkey, I'd like to know, because I think we've had certain allies, including France, have been quite critical of the role that the U.S. has -- has done.  I mean, it looked -- I mean, it seemed a bit like they, kind of, helped Turkey to, kind of, do their offensive; they, kind of, pulled their troops out of the area.  So I'd like to know, from your perspective now, do you think the U.S. is perhaps doing everything to stop this incursion which has been very criticized by the rest of the allies?

And -- and I don't know if you could give us your views on how you see the German proposal to create a safe zone now, under international control, with the U.N.?

And a third question, if I may, it’s related. It's regarding President Erdogan's aspiration to maybe also develop a nuclear program.  You just said that, you know, you would said that allies need to think about modernizing that arsenal; but what would you say for allies that have become a bit more confident now, that they also want to develop a nuclear program?

SEC. ESPER:  Okay well – is that it?

(Laughter.)

MODERATOR:  Three easy questions.

(Laughter.)

SEC. ESPER:  Okay.  Look it was very clear to me in the days leading up to the Turks' incursion of Syria that they meant to do that.  And by the way, this is probably the one issue that I’ve paid most attention to now, during my first two months on the job.

But in the conversations I had with my counterpart, that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs had with his counterpart, it was very clear that the Turks were committing to making some incursion.

And, by the way, they've been -- they were uncomfortable with it since 2014, when we first began relations with the SDF.  So I'm not surprised.  And they had made two or three other incursions between then and now.

But, you know, the U.S. decision to withdraw less than 50 soldiers from the zone of attack was made after it was very clear to us that President Erdogan had made the decision to come across the border.  And I was not about to put the less than 50 U.S. soldiers in between a 15,000-plus man Turkish army, preceded by Turkish militia, and jeopardize the lives of our young service members.

And oh, by the way, I'm not about to start a fight with a NATO ally.  Everybody has said, well you could have -- you could have, I don't know, threatened them with aircraft or you could have just kept them there in place.

If I had done that, I may be in a situation today of trying to explain to the American people why I sacrificed American soldiers for that.  I'm not about to do that, and I'm not about to begin to, you know, throw up aircraft, if you will, and suggest that I might strike NATO ally because that's just not feasible.  That's – we -- we'd be having a different discussion today about the future of the alliance if that had happened.

And so nobody -- there has been some criticism about that, but nobody's yet offered a better alternative to what the United States did.  Again, we're trying to take a very strategic perspective to our interests in the region.  Our interests, our partnership with the SDF, which was a very good -- and still is a very good partnership, by the way -- was about defeating ISIS.  And by March of '19, 2019, we had clearly destroyed the physical caliphate of ISIS.

Our commitment to the Kurds was not to help them establish an autonomous Kurdish state and then defend them against Turkey.  And that's just the cold, hard facts.  And if I had a better solution, we'd sure -- we would have implemented it.  But that's the situation we faced.

I've already forgotten your second question.

(Laughter.)

Oh, the German -- so I haven't read the German proposal or studied the details.  What I know is that the proposal's about establishing -- having European partners, I think, establish joint patrols in this new corridor.

I think it's -- I think it's fine, I think it's fit for those countries who want to step up and help improve the security in that -- in that part of the world, if you will.  Because it's something that we've been calling on our European partners to do for quite some time, is to step up and do more.  So I would be supportive of that. Supportive, but we don't intend on contributing ground forces, I think, to that effort.

MODERATOR:  I could go just across the aisle here.  Coming to you, right.

Q:  (Inaudible) from the Brussels office of the (inaudible), and former U.S. ambassador.  My question is still on Syria.  Under a very limited aspect which is the thousands of jihadis under the custody of Syrian Kurds.  And of them maybe breaking out, or maybe freeing deliberately. Do you still see, Mr. Secretary, prospect for cooperation between your forces, French and British forces, maybe others in that part of Syria, where these jihadis are still in Kurdish control. Because you know in Europe, as you are aware, this is a major worry and I am interested to know your professional assessment.     

Thank you.

SEC. ESPER:  Sure.

I mean, I've had some brief conversations already with my Parisian French counterparts.  We're going to discuss that this week.  I think we're all committed.  I know the United States' certainly is, to continue the defeat-ISIS operations.

We need to figure out what the next steps look like in this new phase of the campaign.  I understand many in Europe are concerned about this.  I think many others in Europe should help contribute to the mission.

I have been pleasantly surprised that the last estimates I had with regard to the status of those fighters, ISIS fighters, is that the SDF is still maintaining control of them in the SDF-controlled territory, and the Turks said that they were maintaining control of them in the territory now controlled by Turkey.  And their best estimate was only slightly more than a hundred or so that escaped so far.

So I do -- again, to me, I go back to the basic mission, the core principles.  This is the same discussion I had in Saudi Arabia and Iraq this week.  And, again, we will have to come engage with our -- some of our NATO allies.  So how do we -- how do we keep that mission up at this point in time, and make sure we maintain it -- And, by the way, the other thing that's popped up as well, ‘aren’t you really concerned now with the Russians and Syrians and what that's going to mean.’  Look, nobody in the region likes ISIS.  We don't like ISIS, the Europeans don't like ISIS, Turkey doesn't like ISIS, Syria doesn't like ISIS, Russia doesn't like ISIS.  There's probably parts of ISIS that doesn't like ISIS.

But I don't -- I think there's a lot of us, at the shared mutual interest of making sure that ISIS doesn't resurge and become the threat that it was years ago.  Okay?

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.  Maybe just right there.  All right, I think it's you.  Hard to see in the light.

Q:  Hi, (inaudible).

MODERATOR:  Just stand up so we can see you.

Q:  (inaudible).  You – Russia’s always mentioned as a great power competitor to the United States, and the National Security Strategy outlines various courses of action against Russia.  But if you look at the past several months and the past couple of years, it seems that Russia has been able to gain by -- as a result of various U.S. moves, and most recently in Syria.  And so how do you square that with those two dynamics.  On the one hand, the U.S. identifies Russia as a challenge.  On the other hand, Russia has been able to exploit the situation in Syria tremendously, hosted Erdogan in Moscow and Sochi, has a new relationship with Africa. And so it seems like Russia has been able to exploit a lot of the U.S. moves recently with bad effects.

Thanks.

SEC. ESPER:  Well, we'll see in six months, how Russia's doing on the Turkish-Syrian border.  And we'll see, you know, what the impact is on Russia, on its interests.

Again, what we're trying to do with -- with a limited number of resources, service members, et cetera, to focus on our core interests, on our establishment of alliances and partners, and to make sure we focus our attention in that way.

And so, again, time will tell with regard to whether or not Russia will benefit from -- from having a presence (inaudible) region. Obviously, we had a presence in Syria, going back to a few years ago when they moved in.  But, again, what we're trying to do is, is be -- is really use our resources, our time, our efforts, focused on the most critical threats to our national security or that are in the most vital interests of the United States.

Q:  Right. 

(CROSSTALK)

MODERATOR:  Please.

Q:  My name is Monica (inaudible) from the International (inaudible) Foundation.  The foundation organizes each year an event about the Arctic region, and following the event of last year, this year is the first one with a focus on security in the Arctic.  So I was wondering, what is the U.S. security policy in the Arctic NATO role in this?

MODERATOR:  In the Arctic?

Q:  The Arctic, yes.

MODERATOR:  There was an echo ..

SEC. ESPER:  That's a very good question.  I think you're asking another question with regard to the future.  And we need to be cognizant of this as climate change occurs, and we see, you know, the Northwest Passage opening up and things like that, that there are a lot of people competing for resources in the Arctic, and for control of the passageways coming through there.

The United States participates in the Arctic Council with many of its allies.  Russia's there.  Somehow, China has claimed an observer status, yet being 700 miles away.

But the Arctic is a place where we can look forward and make sure we're prepared for that future and what it may mean.  And that's why-- that's my business, what's next.  So I can keep pace with -- with our interests, with our challenges, with the threats that may surface there.

Again, Russia's playing a very aggressive game in the Arctic.  And they're building the capabilities -- the capability to have a presence there.  And so we need to be prepared for that.  I think that's another area where – where, where NATO needs to pay attention.  We have good NATO allies who are present in that region, and are very capable, and we work closely with them.

MODERATOR:  I’m trying to be geographically diverse.  Just right here, second row, gentleman.

Q:  I'm (inaudible), I'm ambassador (inaudible) Japan.

I'm asking this question as a layman, but how do you see the security environment in the Asia-Pacific, in the years, twenty years’ time, especially in the context of the post-INF period.

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, so Japan is the great ally of ours, part of -- the cornerstone of our security presence in the -- in the Pacific.  My first trip was to the Indo-Pacific in, I think, late July and August.  The region is under -- is under duress right now, particularly the smaller countries.

We see a very heavy hand by China.  And I have had this conversation with -- with my Japanese counterpart and my Korean counterpart and my Australian counterpart.  I mean, around the route and there's a lot of concern about the heavy hand that China is using in the Indo-Pacific, whether it's military, political, economic.

It's clear they're trying to establish a -- some degree of hegemony maybe (inaudible) them out, but (inaudible) in the region, and we need to be very -- we need to compete with them in that region.  And that's why, you know, I've engaged all of our traditional allies and partners.

I visited Mongolia. I'll be going back to the region next month and visiting with other current allies and future partners.  Again, not because I want to -- I want China to be an ally, just the opposite.  I want China to follow the same international rules -- the rules-based order that this German Marshall Fund has embraced, and be a responsible, a normal actor in the international environment.

And so I have no problem with China's rise, I just have a problem if China tries to use that economic power, the military power to subvert others, and to -- and to bring them to heel, if you will.

MODERATOR:  Secretary, I'm conscious of your time.  We’re going to have to wrap it up; but let me, if I could, maybe just ask a brief question of my own again, a two-part question.

SEC. ESPER:  Oh, a very short one.  A short one.

MODERATOR:  Well, (laughter).  No, really.  What -- what are you most worried about?  When you wake up, or somebody's going to wake you up and tell you something that you don't want to hear, what are you most worried about and what are you most encouraged by in your job?

SEC. ESPER:  You know, if there's one thing you worry about, it's miscalculation somewhere where folks -- something was misinterpreted and leads to a conflict, an unnecessary conflict or unintended conflict, that could have been avoided through diplomacy.  And -- and I think the Turkish incursion is a good example.  Maybe not as precipitous as others that may arise, but nonetheless.

So it's things like that, that -- you know, that you're trying to manage on a day-to-day basis, to make sure that we keep the world as secure and stable as possible, day-in and day-out, so we can allow diplomacy to really play its part and help keep things moving in the right direction.  And we try to -- we've seen a lot -- you know, a lot of positive trends over recent years, but we're seeing negative trends now and I talked about them in my remarks.

So, again, if I -- my deepest concern is the furthest out, and that is that what happens in 10, 15, 20 years?  What is the trajectory of China, and will it -- how will it -- what path will it choose, and will it be a normal, rational actors in the system and follow the rules?  Or will it try and chart its own course and reshape everything that we've built over the last 70 years?

MODERATOR:  Mark Esper, we're really conscious of your schedule.  Thank you very much for doing this.  Thank you for your openness in answering the questions, for all the ground that you've covered.  You're always most welcome at GMF.

Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)