Barack Obama photo

Interview with Charlie Rose in Hanover, Germany

April 26, 2016

The President. Charlie.

Rose. Charlie, Mr. President.

The President. Good to see you again.

Rose. Good to see you. Someone told me that this is a trip about three of your favorite ladies. The First Lady, the Queen, and the Chancellor.

The President. It is a pretty powerful combination. And I've enjoyed spending time with all of them.

Rose. Have you ever walk — did a walk and talk in a room, except in the White House?

The President. I would say that this is the most elegant walk and talk that I've done in quite some time.

Rose. I'm proud to be a part of it.

The President. Absolutely.

Rose. Let's walk down this way. Let me start, if I may, about the announcement that you're sending for 250 Special Forces to Syria.

The President. Mm-hmm.

Rose. What does that represent?

The President. It represents what I've said from the start which is that us dismantling ISIL is a priority and, although we are not going to be sending ground troops in to fight, we are going to try to find out what works and then double down. And one of the things that's worked so far is us putting Special Forces in for training and advising of local forces, but also intelligence gathering. One of the challenges of mounting a fight against a group like ISIL that embeds itself with civilian forces, they're not isolated, they're not out in remote areas where we can just hit them on their own. So, having people who develop relationships with local tribes, with people who may be going in and out of places like Raqqa, us being able to distinguish between those whom we can work with and those we can't, all that's really important.

Rose. Will they be engaged in any search and kill missions?

The President. I'm not going to go into details of all the mission sets that they're involved with. As a general rule, the rule is not to engage directly with the enemy but rather to work with local forces, that's consistent with our overall policy throughout.

Rose. One question about the GCC, you have made it clear that you wanted to go there and reassure them, and also talk about Iran, how you can both be aggressive in monitoring and, at the same time, open them up to diplomacy. Did something come out of this meeting on that point?

The President. There's no doubt that there is good reason to be suspicious about Iran. They have been a state sponsor of terror. They have tried to destabilize some of their GCC neighbors. They support organizations like Hezbollah that threaten Israel, and have engaged in terrorist acts against the United States. But the argument that I have made to them is that, within Iran, there are forces that recognize the need to engage the world in a more constructive way. They're not liberals. They're not friends of America.

Rose. Are they moderates?

The President. But they're more practical and more moderate. And then there are hardliners. And what we should be doing is setting up a collective response to any aggression that's generated by the hardliners, while at the same time, being in a dialogue with those who understand the need for change. And I think that if we're going to solve problems like Syria. If we're going to make progress in Yemen, where we now have a cessation of hostilities, it makes sense for those GCC countries to not necessarily trust Iran, but at least open up a dialogue and a channel with them where interests of both sides can be met, and we can reduce the sectarianism that unfortunately is feeding a lot of the violence in the Middle East.

Rose. Let me pivot to China. Your Secretary of Defense has been in the region. How aggressive do you see the action in the South China Sea, and do you worry that they will cross some line in which you will have to respond more aggressively?

The President. I've been consistent since I have been president in believing that a productive, candid relationship between the United States and China is vital, not just to our two countries but to world peace and security. And generally, we've been able to establish those kinds of channels and work through a series of tensions. I have repeatedly said to the Chinese government that we welcome a continued, peaceful rise of China. One of the arguments that I make in the United States is that we have a lot more to fear from a weak, disintegrating, paranoid China that can't absorb, you know, hundreds of millions of people who might slip back into poverty. We're a lot better off with a China that feels confident.

Rose. Not a zero sum game.

The President. It's not a zero sum game. What is true, though, is that they have a tendency to view some of the immediate regional issues or disputes as a zero sum game. So with respect to the South China Sea, rather than operate under international norms and rules, their attitude is we're the biggest kids around here, and we're going to push aside the Philippines or the Vietnamese.

Rose. And how do you respond?

The President. And our argument to them is that we are not claimants. We're not choosing sides here. What we are trying to uphold is a basic notion of international rules, norms, and order. And, so, for example, if the Filipinos appeal to international tribunals under the treaty of law of the sea, which China and the Philippines are both signatories too, that's a way to resolve a dispute, not by sending out a gunship or threatening fishermen. You know, this is an area where, ironically, China's actions have actually pushed a lot of –

Rose. The neighbors.

The President. — the neighbors towards us. I mean, if you think about Vietnam, I'm going to be traveling there next month, given the history between our two countries, the fact that, right now, we are far more popular than China in Vietnam. And there's a strategic pivot that they're engaged in, partly economic because of the Trans-Pacific partnership, partly because of their concerns and the desire to balance power between us and China. I think that's both an opportunity for us, but it doesn't mean that we're trying to act against China, we just want them to be partners with us, and where they break out of international rules and norms — We will?

The President. We're going to hold them to account.

Rose. And how do you do that?

The President. Well, there's going to be a variety of diplomatic mechanisms. They care about what we think. They're not looking to pick a fight either. We do have to understand their politics and their systems, and we're not looking for any rash actions of any sort, but what we have been able to do is to send a clear message to them that the international community is on the side of resolving these disputes peacefully.

Rose. Let me take you to Britain where, like any other American tourist, you had breakfast, you had lunch with the Queen, had dinner with the future King. Played golf with the prime minister and you celebrated Shakespeare's 400th birthday at the Globe Theater.

The President. It was a nice visit.

Rose. And then you caused some controversy because you said to them, Britain is better in the European Union, it should not be Brexit because Britain in the European Union can do more.

The President. Mm-hmm.

Rose. Are they responsive to that, you think, the citizens of Britain, where you have held in high regard?

The President. Ultimately, this is going to be up to them. As I was very clear, I don't have a vote. This is up to the British people. They should make their decisions not based on what's good for the United States, but what's good for the United Kingdom. But, I am absolutely persuaded that the United Kingdom is stronger, more influential, and more prosperous, if it stays in the European Union. Think about it. They send 44 percent of their exports to this single market in Europe. If they leave the European Union, they have lost their biggest customer. Now, they will try to renegotiate and get back in. I guarantee you it won't be on better terms than what they're in right now. So just from a pure economic perspective, this should be a no-brainer. There is a larger set of forces at work here, though. There is a corollary between those who are demanding that Britain leave the E.U., anti-immigrant forces that are concerned about outsiders changing their culture, what we see back home with Mr. Trump, and some of the rhetoric there. We are in a moment of global change, and people have anxieties about that change, some of it very legitimate. Global capital's moving, workers are less mobile, and as a consequence, they have less leverage, wages stagnate. There is obviously terrorism fears that have emerged that are very complicated, but people want to simplify them by thinking if we can just hermetically seal ourselves off then we would be OK. And what all this adds up to is I think a desire to pull back, withdraw, and reject the global integration that's been taking place. Unfortunately, in an age of smartphones, and the worldwide web, and international travel, and big cargo ships, and global supply chains, that's just not possible, and, so, what we need to do is not disengage, but rather get in there and try to make sure that the international rules are ones that are consistent with our values. So we want, you know, Great Britain should be in the E.U. arguing on behalf of the values, and the common sense that they care about, and which, by the way is, you know, tend to approximate the things that we care about as well.

Rose. You made an important speech here.

The President. Yeah.

Rose. And you're going to talk about trade, I assume, you talk about some of the issues facing Europe. How bad do you think the opposition to trade and the rise of populism is? I mean, some say that, you know, there is an effort to blame globalization, as you just suggested, and that adds to the optical of plants closing and jobs going overseas, and there's a fear not only in Europe but in the United States.

The President. Absolutely.

Rose. How do you convince them that trade is positive? Because you've got a trade agreement with Asia, you've got a trade agreement with the E.U.

The President. Well, as I said before, there is a reason why people have some suspicions about trade. Not every trade agreement in the past has been good for workers. There has been offshoring seeking primarily low wages or low environmental standards, and companies can profit and then sell back those goods, irrespective of what that's done to the communities that they've left. And so, there are legitimate concerns about how globalization is proceeding. My argument, and I think this is hard to dispute, is that the only way to change this system is to engage it, not to withdraw from it. If, for example, we don't pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership, where we are now writing the rules for the Asia-Pacific, and we're able to raise labor standards so that suddenly Vietnam, for the first time, is going to start recognizing labor rights. Or Malaysia suddenly recognizes they've got to do something about human trafficking. Or other countries start saying, under the terms of this agreement, we have to abide by certain environmental standards. If we don't ratify that, then we have a status quo in which China goes into those same countries and says, we don't care about human rights, we don't care about worker rights, we don't care about environmental rights, and they will write the trade rules that will disadvantage our companies, and further water down the standards that we've built up inside of our country. So, the point is not that there aren't legitimate concerns about globalization. The point is that we're the equivalent of three-quarters up the mountain, and it's a lot easier to go up than to try to climb back down, and I think the knee-jerk response, both from the left and the right, in Europe and in some cases in the United States, has been to say, let's just, you know, pull up the drawbridge, let's not ratify any trade agreements. Well, if we don't ratify trade agreements, that means you must be satisfied with the status quo. Obviously, it's not satisfactory. If you don't like how NAFTA worked, the Trans-Pacific Partnership actually modifies it in a way that enforces labor and environmental standards that you used to complain about.

Rose. But you've got some convincing to do. You've got to convince the likely nominee of your party.

The President. Well, the politics of it are tough, and the reason is because the benefits of trade have often been diffuse. Even well-structured trade agreements have created some disruptions. It may be good for 90 percent of the economy. It may create all kinds of jobs and export opportunities, because export jobs tend to pay better. But people don't see it as much, they don't feel it. The average person who's working for a company in the United States that exports doesn't necessarily know that they're exporting, they just know they're making a great product. If U.S. consumers benefit from lower cost goods that improve their quality of life and keep inflation down, that's not something they know, but when they see that plant close, they do know that. And oftentimes, if the plant has closed because of automation as opposed to trade, it's hard to make that distinction. So part of our job is not to dismiss concerns about globalization. They are real and they are legitimate. It is to argue how do we make globalization, which is not going to be reversed any time soon, work for ordinary people? How do we make sure that it's working for communities all across America or here in Europe? And that is something I'm convinced we can do. But, you know, we've got to get the facts out.

Rose. We're in Germany.

The President. Yeah.

Rose. Your favorite, as you have said, your favorite global leader who's been with you longest.

The President. Yeah.

Rose. What is it about you and Angela Merkel? What is it about her that makes you believe that she represents the kind of leadership you need in Europe?

The President. Well, I think that I have an affinity for her, and I like to think she has an affinity for me because we're both pretty rational. We both — and try to analyze a problem and solve it based on facts, and reason, and common sense. And what I also believe, though, is that she represents a vision of Europe, both in her own life and in her policies, that has resulted in stability and prosperity here in Europe and a strong transatlantic relationship. You know, she believes in free markets. She believes in liberalism. She believes in democracy. She believes in a free press. She believes in pluralism.

Rose. And she's willing to make moral decisions when it may not be in her political interest.

The President. That's exactly right. Now, she's a good politician or otherwise she wouldn't be here that long. But if you look at what she's doing right now with respect to the refugee crisis, she's making an argument to the German people that, look, we're prospering now because people invested in us in a martial plan, and helped us during the reunification. And we worked hard and we deserve our success, but we also benefited from those who were willing to see humanity in us after World War II, and we now have that same obligation. And that kind of moral authority I think is important. Now, she and I have had disagreements on various issues on economic policies. She's pursued a more austere set of economic policies and had that influence in Europe, in the way that slowed their growth a little bit more. But when — even when we disagree, we're disagreeing on the basis of facts and a common baseline of values, and I think that's reflective of what the transatlantic relationship has to be about.

Rose. What will you — you will leave this conversation and go meet with heads of state around Europe. How are you coming together on dealing with migration and refugees?

The President. Well, what I've said to them is that this is not just a European problem, this is our problem too. For two reasons, one is that if you have a flood of refugees and it's disorderly, then, you know, these are folks who potentially, if not handled properly, could end up being an alienated population inside of Europe that is not assimilated, is not integrated, and will be resentful, and that could have an impact in terms of their willingness to engage us and help us on things like counterterrorism. But more importantly, more strategically is the strain it's putting on Europe's politics, the way that it advances far right nationalism, the degree to which it is encouraging a breakup of European unity, that in some cases is being exploited by somebody like Mr. Putin, who says forget about Europe, look at sort of reasserting the nationalist greatness and anti-Muslim sentiments.

Rose. His goal is to divide Europe.

The President. Well, you know, I think that Mr. Putin has generally viewed NATO, E.U., Transatlantic Unity as a threat to Russian power. I think he's mistaken about that. I indicated to him that, in fact, a strong, unified Europe working with a strong, outward-looking Russia, that is defining its greatness not on the basis of military but rather on the basis of its ability to harness the talents of its people for economic good, then that's the right recipe. So far, he has not been entirely persuaded. In the meantime, I want to make sure that Europe itself is not threatened. So what we have been doing, to answer your question about how we're approaching it, we are under the NATO umbrella, trying to help them in the Aegean Sea. We have been trying to facilitate the deal that has been struck between the E.U. and Turkey, so that there is an orderly process of migration, and, obviously, one of the things we have to do is to try to use all our diplomatic power together to bring about an end to the civil war in Syria.

Rose. As I prepared for this, your trip, and whether it was the GCC, or going to London, or here in Germany, or meeting with these prime ministers, it seems that a principle that comes out of your seven-years-plus, it is that you have learned or you have strongly believed that you have to use — you have to do this with partners, whether against ISIL, whether battling migration here in Europe, or right wing politics, or whatever it might be. Is that a message you have to these prime ministers, we have to work together, and are they receptive to it in terms of making a commitment, so they're not free riders, making a commitment to the effort against ISIL, to the effort to deal with migration, to the effort against terrorism in their homes?

The President. They are receptive to it.

Rose. What are you asking of them?

The President. I think that they need to do more particularly around defense. A very simple proposition in NATO, has been everybody needs to spend at least two percent of their GDP on defense. Now, we spend close to four, and we understand that some countries may need to gradually get there, but there has been a complacency involved, post-cold war, around NATO defenses. Now that you have threats on the southern front, that's going to strain resources and require new capabilities, but the general message that we have to do things together is absolutely true because the nature of the threats we now face are different. These are transnational threats. These are threats that don't involve defeating some great power that's trying to take over the world, but it's climate change, and it's transnational drug trafficking, and human trafficking, and it's problems with failed states, and poverty and migration, and these are the kinds of problems that are best dealt with by linking up and sharing information, and sharing best practices, and pooling resources. And one of the points that I made very early on in my presidency is that the United States will reserve the right to act unilaterally anytime we have to defend ourselves and our core interests, and I've done so repeatedly on a number of occasions. I haven't been afraid to deploy U.S. forces when it comes to defending the homeland, or our people, or our interests. But when it comes to issues that face all of us, that threaten all of us, coming out with a unified voice, being able to project and magnify the power of those who share values, share institutions, and share a vision for the future, that's the best recipe for success, and that's what we have been able to do with the Paris agreement, that is what allowed us to get the Iran nuclear deal, that is what is allowing us now to ratify a vision of sustainable development that allows us to get private sector actors, as well as the public donations, and to electrify a subcontinent that needs electricity desperately. And that's what allowed us to deal with Ebola, a crisis that could have gotten completely out of control, but because of rapid intervention led by us, saved countless lives. So, in each of these cases, I think the approach generally has been vindicated.

Rose. And what about North Korea, finally?

The President. North Korea is a massive challenge. Our first priority is to protect the American people, and our allies, the Republic of Korea, Japan, that are vulnerable to the provocative actions that North Korea is engaging in. They have been thus far resistant to international pressure because their economy is so insulated and so rudimentary that trying to squeeze them harder oftentimes doesn't leave –

Rose. Has limited gains.

The President. Has limited gains. And I am concerned about the fact that they continue to invest heavily in not just nuclear weapons but also delivery systems. Having said that, this is an example of where maintaining a constructive relationship with China can make a difference because if there's one country that could help us amplify the costs of bad behavior, and could offer also the benefits of better behavior by the North Koreans, China would be a critical partner in that process.

Rose. But my last question off of that is basically China helping you make the point, you have to stop them, but every time they try and fail, they learn something.

The President. That's exactly right.

Rose. How close are they to having both the missile delivery system as well as the warhead?

The President. Well, look, obviously, they're not as far along as some of the other nuclear states.

Rose. Of course, but?

The President. But, they are erratic enough, their leader is personally irresponsible enough that we don't want them getting close, and we're going to have to continue to apply pressure. And this is going to be an issue that I inherited from the previous president, and, unlike the Iran nuclear deal, I'm not going to be able to say to the next president, this one I can wrap up in a bow and say has been resolved for a while. This is something that is continually going to vex, I think, the region and the international community, and U.S. leadership is going to be required, but it's not something that lends itself to an easy solution. We could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals. But aside from the humanitarian costs of that, they are right next door to our vital ally, Republic of Korea. And so that creates vulnerabilities for our allies, and higher costs in terms of deterrents, and we just got to constantly work with our allies to make sure that we're putting as much pressure as possible on them, but doing it in a responsible and cogent way. One of the things that we have been doing is spending a lot more time positioning our missile defense systems so that even as we try to resolve the underlying problem of nuclear development inside of North Korea, we're also setting up a shield that can at least block the relatively low-level threats that they're posing now.

Rose. Thank you for taking time. People more important than me waiting to see you.

The President. Thank you very much.

Rose. Thank you.

The President. Good.

Barack Obama, Interview with Charlie Rose in Hanover, Germany Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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