Wendy Sherman on the Iran nuclear talks, multilateral cooperation, and transatlantic data flows

Watch the EU-US Future Forum

Event transcript

The Hon. Wendy Sherman
US Deputy Secretary of State

Benjamin Haddad
Director, Europe Center, Atlantic Council

BENJAMIN HADDAD: Hi, everyone. I am delighted to be joined by Ambassador Wendy Sherman, deputy secretary of state of the United States, to close our three days of EU-US Future Forum and to talk about the Biden administration’s priorities for its relations with the European Union.

Ambassador Sherman, thank you so much for joining us. I should say first congratulations on your recent confirmation. There’s a lot of work to be done, and we’ll talk about this today.

I want to first ask you, obviously, President Biden has put alliances at the center of his international message. This was an important message during the campaign and the first few months of his presidency. He will be going to Brussels in June as part of his first international trip. What is the message that he will bring to his European allies?

DEPUTY SECRETARY WENDY SHERMAN: Well, first of all, thank you, Ben, for this conversation today, and congratulations to the Atlantic Council on this US-EU Forum. I looked through the program. It’s been just an extraordinary series of conversations.

And it speaks to the point you’re making, which is that President Biden and Secretary Blinken have put alliances and partnerships at the center of our foreign policy. It is critical to our national security. We know that the United States is a leader in the world, but we want to lead with partners. We want to lead with the strong alliance we have with Europe. We want to reinvest and are reinvesting in the transatlantic relationship.

And as you point out, President Biden’s first overseas trip will be to the UK and to Brussels, Belgium. He will be engaged in conversations with NATO. He will be engaged [in] conversations with the G7 and with his EU counterparts. He is going to come with a message about how important the strength of this alliance is, how we have so much work to do together and are doing, whether it’s on COVID-19, climate, how we’re dealing with other great powers in the world, how we are building the digital economy of the future, how we are recovering from COVID-19, [or] how we’re dealing with all of the security issues in front of us.

We are stronger together. The secretary has said, [and] the president has said, we want to build back better and we want to build back better with Europe.

BENJAMIN HADDAD: Build back better with Europe. Ambassador Sherman, you laid out already a lot of the topics that we’ll talk through in this conversation. I want to ask you more specifically, what is the president’s vision for his [relationship] with Europe and the role that Europe can play in the transatlantic relationship?

In the last few years, obviously, the question of burden-sharing had been central to the conversation and we hear European leaders talking about Europe asserting its strategic autonomy and being a sort of more responsible actor on the global stage. How do you envision the EU’s role in the transatlantic relationship?

DEPUTY SECRETARY WENDY SHERMAN: Well, the president and the secretary of state always welcome thinking, ideas, assertiveness. We are delighted that Europe and each country wants to be a leader on the world stage and join with us. You know, our interests won’t always align, though they pretty much do. But our values are absolutely in alignment, and so whether it is dealing with the People’s Republic of China, whether it’s dealing with Russian aggression—or trying to find a pathway with each of the countries—whether it is working to deal with human rights or with this incredible pandemic that we are all working so hard on together, we will do it better if we do it together.

And I know you’re going to hear that refrain from me again and again today because it really is central. Whether we are, together, the strongest world economy, we can decide what will happen to the future of democracy. We can, together, make sure that we have security, [and] that we look ahead to the climate challenge that we all are facing together. And if we, in fact, think together, act together, even where we may diverge from time to time on any specific detail or issue, the overall top lines are the same.

And I think we saw that in Secretary Blinken’s just returning from the G7 ministerial meeting where there was an incredibly strong communiqué on all of these issues, where there was amazing solidarity to move forward to take on all of these challenges.

So, yes, we want to share the burden. We can’t do it alone. We appreciate we can’t do it alone. Where NATO is concerned, we want Europe to meet its Wales pledges country by country. But burden-sharing is also about working together to build the capabilities of NATO, to build the future deterrence and defensive capabilities of NATO, to look to the emerging technologies and think about what we need for NATO, and to do it together.

BENJAMIN HADDAD: You mentioned, of course, the question of China, which has really permeated all of our conversations in the last few days, from trade to the question of digital privacy, human rights, security, and defense. The EU has called China a systemic rival but is also going through a heated debate over the negotiation of the investment agreement with China. How do you envision the cooperation with the European Union when it comes to addressing China’s behavior?

DEPUTY SECRETARY WENDY SHERMAN: Well, I think we saw in the G7 ministerial great alignment on the importance of looking at China in three different dimensions, areas where we must compete as we look to the future and we look to artificial intelligence and quantum computing, and the changes in the digital economy, things that none of us can even imagine today.

We really need to do it together and we have to ensure that the West, that the United States and Europe, can compete in a very productive way to ensure that we have jobs for our working and middle class. President Biden and Secretary Blinken have said that for America we have to make sure that the middle class and our working class are at the center of all we do. And I know that’s the same for European leaders, because we want to make sure we can have the jobs of the future and have a future that underpins our values.

Secondly, we know that there are areas where we need to cooperate with China, whether it is climate or even global health, in some of the security dimensions of nuclear arms. We need to find areas of cooperation because we have issues that cross boundaries. And so every country, and certainly a country as large and as important as China, has to be part of that future vision.

And then there will be areas where we will be adversarial rivals, where we will have to challenge China, what it does in the South China Sea or what it does on human rights. You know, when Europe and the United States work together to speak out about the takeover of Hong Kong, when we have spoken together, when the United States put in place our Global Magnitsky [Human Rights] Act to bring sanctions against China for its actions against the Uighurs in Xinjiang, Europe joined with America, America joined Europe, and we were much more powerful in that statement about the value of human rights because we did it together.

BENJAMIN HADDAD: Yeah. One of the priorities of the European Union, obviously, is defending multilateralism and multilateral cooperation within international organizations. In the last years we have seen the United States desert some of the multilateral fora, like the WHO [and] the WTO. One of the first decisions of President Biden was to reintegrate the World Health Organization.

Let me ask you, how do you see the cooperation with the EU in these international organizations? And more importantly, how can we make sure that they effectively deliver results?

DEPUTY SECRETARY WENDY SHERMAN: Excellent question. I would urge everyone to look at Secretary Blinken’s statement on multilateralism at a session that China led this morning, since they’re president of the UN Security Council at the moment. It was a very vigorous debate about multilateralism, with the secretary pointing out the importance of us working together, the importance of international institutions, and the need for reform as well.

We are delighted to be back in the world community. President Biden reentered the climate Paris agreement on day one of his administration. We are not going to leave the World Health Organization. We are up for election, as I think everyone knows, and [we’re] very grateful to Italy and to others who have supported us in running for election to the Human Rights Council for the 2022-2024 term.

We want to reengage in the world and work with others. America needs to take its rightful place as a leader in the world, but not as a leader alone; with other leaders, to tackle what are very tough challenges for all of us ahead. So we’re glad to be back and we’re glad to be working with Europe to address these very difficult challenges.

BENJAMIN HADDAD: One of these difficult challenges is an issue that you know very well because you were at the forefront of negotiating the JCPOA during the Obama administration. Obviously, this is a key priority for Europeans, who have stayed within the JCPOA in the last few years. How do you see the negotiations with Iran going over their nuclear program? Do you see any progress and a reason for hope in the near future?

DEPUTY SECRETARY WENDY SHERMAN: First of all, I know that you had Federica Mogherini, the former high representative of the European Union, speak about the JCPOA. And I want to acknowledge how critical she was to coming to terms with that agreement the first time around. And then I want to thank our European partners, who are really leading the way on the subsequent negotiation to get compliance and reenter the JCPOA and build on it, to be longer, stronger, better, to address all of the other issues of concern to all of us in terms of Iran’s behavior in the region, its ballistic missiles, its weapons trade, [and] its human rights in its own country and around the world. And, of course, we have great concerns, as have other countries, including our British colleagues, about British citizens [and] American citizens, who are unjustly detained in Iran and are currently imprisoned.

So there is a lot that we have to address here. And Europe has been at the forefront. As you know, the talks are indirect with the United States. Our team is in one hotel and Europe, Russia, China, and the Iranians are in another hotel. And the Europeans are really shuttling back and forth to try to help get to a place that’s important.

There’s been some progress made, but there’s still a long way to go on this. I am hopeful that we can reach an understanding so that the IAEA technical agreement that expires with Iran at the end of May can be extended. I’m hopeful that we make enough progress that it can stand as the Iranian election gets underway in June. I don’t know if we can get to compliance for compliance agreement and an agreement to continue discussions past that by the deadline of their election. But I thank Europe for their extraordinary work in trying to move forward.

I also want to give a shoutout to our British colleagues who are working with us and with others to address the detainees. Again, we all are working very hard to try to free our citizens who are unjustly detained and, in the case of United States, to gain more information about what has happened to Robert Levinson, who has been gone for so long from his family. These are all very tough, tough issues. And it is only because we worked together that we can make progress. So I’m very grateful to Europe for its help in this regard.


Let me stay in the Middle East. I want to ask you about Turkey. We’ve seen rising tensions between the European Union and Turkey over recent years as to Turkish intervention in northeast Syria; Turkish behavior, obviously, in the Eastern Mediterranean, challenging the Greek and Cypriot sovereignty. President Biden has also had, I think, pretty strong words about rising illiberalism in the Turkish political system. What do you expect from the relation with Turkey in the next years and President Erdogan? How do you see also room for partnership with the European Union in addressing Turkish behavior?

DEPUTY SECRETARY WENDY SHERMAN: Well, look, Ben, there’s no question that Turkey is a valued and important partner in NATO. And they have been a partner in many of the issues that we’re trying to resolve in the Middle East, including Syria, of course, where it is complicated and difficult, but they have important interests as well. So Turkey is important to NATO and to our forward action. At the same time, as you point out, President Biden has said he will call out undemocratic action when he sees it, abuses of human rights, concerns about the constriction of democratic space in Turkey. He has done so. We will do so. We will continue dialogue with Turkey, as Europe has, to in fact try to help Turkey move to a better and more democratic future.

Turkey is an enormous country with a growing middle class and a growing population that is engaged all over the world, [and has] strong ties particularly with Germany, of course, because of history and of that special relationship. And so I think it is a complex relationship, but one that we have to acknowledge is important, valued. And at the same time, we need to call out the undemocratic space and try to dialogue with Turkey to help make a difference, and to bolster civil society in Turkey so that, in fact, there is a voice within Turkey itself about its own future.

BENJAMIN HADDAD: We’ve heard the administration signal its concern over Russia [massing] troops at the border with Ukraine in recent months. I want to ask you about what the priorities of the administration [are] in its relation with Russia. President Biden has announced he intends to meet with President Putin. And would you envision here a partnership with the European Union in addressing Russian aggression?

DEPUTY SECRETARY WENDY SHERMAN: I think you heard Secretary Blinken yesterday in an interview with Andrea Mitchell from Kyiv, Ukraine, which he was visiting, and talking about how on one hand, of course, there is Russian aggression. We have seen that in the troop buildup and the weapons buildup on the border with Ukraine. Russia has moved back from its highest level of military troops, but I think we’re all wary about where the future might be. And the United States, with Europe, has not been hesitant about sanctioning Russia, where we must be concerned whether that is going back to the poisoning of Skripal in the UK; whether it is in the poisoning of Navalny and the current prison treatment of Navalny, not giving him access to independent medical doctors, in fact letting him out of prison. We have seen that in a lot of ways, that they have constrained space and that they have taken aggressive actions.

On the other hand, we want to maintain a dialogue with Russia. We have extended the New START agreement. That is very important. Russia and the United States are the largest holders of nuclear weapons, and so strategic stability is critical. I know that Europe believes that as well. And in fact, Russia is on Europe’s border and doorstep even more than it is on the United States’. So it’s very important for us to learn from Europe. I think the OSCE has played an important role in trying to move forward in creating stability.

I know that we are also working with Russia where the Arctic is concerned. Before the end of this month there will be an Arctic Council meeting. Secretary Blinken will be attending that. And we have a lot of common issues that we have to work on with Russia. We were very glad, by the way, to see at the leaders summit on climate that both President Putin and President Xi attended and engaged on that issue. So it is a multifaceted relationship.

And I want to say very clearly our effort is not to either contain Russia or to contain China. They are sovereign nations who want to have a place in the world. We just want to make sure that that place is not one of aggression [and] it is not a place where human rights are abused. We want to make sure that the rules-based order that we have all worked so hard to construct is followed, that there is a level playing field.

I should have acknowledged earlier that the US and the EU are going to kick off the US-EU Dialogue on China. The EEAS secretary-general, Stefano Sannino, and I will kick off that dialogue for the first time later this month.

So we’ve got a lot of work to do, both with these great powers—Russia and China. They are complex in both cases, but is important that we do this in a way where we are both looking at the things that are problematic, we are competing effectively, and we are cooperating where it is in our interest to do so.

BENJAMIN HADDAD: Yeah. I want to follow up on that because it’s very interesting. You mentioned the climate summit recently where the United States made very ambitious commitments to fighting climate change. How do you balance precisely this necessary cooperation on the fight against climate change, which is a priority for both the European Union and the United States, with the necessity to push back against malign behavior from both Russia and China?

DEPUTY SECRETARY WENDY SHERMAN: Russia and China came to the climate summit because it’s in their interest to do so. Their own citizens are victims of the change in climate. They understand that we’re going to see climate migrants as the weather heats up in some places and perhaps gets colder in others. They understand that the global pandemic that we’re seeing is probably in some measure connected to climate change. They see this as their—in their own interest.

And so we should take advantage of that reality and work together on solving this problem. It cannot be solved by any one country alone. Air moves. Changes in climate move. Use of fossil fuels affects all of us wherever it occurs. We all want to make sure that those of our citizens whose jobs rely on fossil fuels have a pathway to the future, have a way to get retrained or find good jobs in renewables, that economies are not completely disrupted by the changes that we’re all going to have to adapt to going forward.

So I think you see Russia and China at these tables because it’s in their interest. So they will cooperate because they must. We all must. And that will not keep us from challenging and competing with them where we must as well.

BENJAMIN HADDAD: You mentioned the US-EU Dialogue on China that you will have with your EEAS counterpart. One of the areas where Europe has led is on the question of digital issues, from fighting harmful online content to ensuring privacy. I want to ask you, where do you see potential convergence between the United States and the European Union on these digital issues? And how do they matter precisely on having this dialogue on global issues and on China?

DEPUTY SECRETARY WENDY SHERMAN: Really good question, Ben. You know, emerging technologies are just at the core of our imagining the future. We’re doing work here at the State Department to really look ahead to the next decade. What capabilities do we need? What do we need to do to be able to compete effectively? How does this affect our diplomacy going forward?

Europe is doing the same thing. And although there may be some details [about] which we have differences, what we have in common is much greater than any differences that we might have. We believe in the importance of transatlantic data flows. We believe that the digital economy is—the future is here, that we both believe in the importance of privacy. We believe that information is a democratic tool, but we have to fight against disinformation and we have to make sure that we are able to manage the extraordinary amount of disinformation that certainly here in the United States has affected our election environment, as it has in many European countries.

So our values, our principles around the digital economy about emerging technologies, are in common with each other. And so what we will have to work on is the details about which we have some differences, because we are different societies with different needs and different interests, but the commonalities are very great among us. And I believe that we will be able to move forward together.

And we will not be able to compete with China unless we work together on these issues [and] we make sure that Chinese technology does not become part of our systems so that China has access to our data, can use surveillance techniques, [or] can really control the world economy. We are in a competition. And we can win this competition, but it’ll take a lot of work with Europe to do so.

BENJAMIN HADDAD: A lot of work indeed.

I want to ask you one last question about COVID recovery. In the last few days one of the issues that we discussed the most with our guests was President Biden’s proposal to lift the patent on vaccines to ensure widespread vaccination against COVID around the world. One of the things that we heard the most from our European counterparts was the question of export control and ensuring [the] export of vaccine doses from the United States and elsewhere around the world. I’d like to ask, what is the plan—what are the plans of the administration when it comes to ensuring worldwide access to the vaccine?

DEPUTY SECRETARY WENDY SHERMAN: So I think you heard President Biden say that he is committed to sharing our AstraZeneca doses with the world. We have one tranche of doses that will, we hope, soon be ready once our Food and Drug Administration says they are safe, because we certainly don’t want to export anything that is unsafe. And as some people know, we had a problem with one of our plants. So we want to make sure that these doses are safe. They will be available. He believes that over the coming months there will be as many as sixty million doses of AstraZeneca available, and we will distribute those throughout the world.

I quite agree with our European colleagues that getting vaccination—vaccines out into the world is quite critical. We all need to encourage all of the pharmaceutical manufacturers to increase their production as much as possible, to provide vaccines at cost, if not through nonprofits, particularly in the developing world.

The president made this decision to ask our US trade representative to go to the WTO to see if, in fact, a temporary lift of patents might help production increase. As you know, this decision will take some time at the WTO and then ramping up will take some time.

But the COVID crisis is devastating to everyone [and] to the world economy. We have seen what has happened in India over the last days. And my condolences—my heartfelt, deep, deep concern for everyone in India who has a family member who is sick or who has lost their life. We, indeed, have lost some of our team in India. I’m sure that is true for other embassies as well. So this is a crisis that moves around the world. These mutations move around the world.

So, yes, it is critical for us to vaccinate our own citizens and protect them, and President Biden made that a first priority. But he well understands [and] Secretary Blinken well understands—and there was a lot of discussion at the G7 ministerial about this—that we have to lead in getting vaccines to the world or it’ll come right back to those of us who have had the privilege and the possibility of vaccinating our citizens in the first instance.

So this COVID crisis and challenge is not over, even if we get to herd immunity in our own populations. We have to help the rest of the world get there. The United States is a leader in doing that and doing so with Europe. Together with Europe, we have pledged $45 billion to this effort. The United States alone has made the single biggest contribution through Gavi to COVAX, two billion dollars, and another two billion dollars through 2022.

There is a lot of work left to do. This was high on the list of discussions at the G7 ministerial. I’m sure it will be at the G7 leaders meeting, just as it has been in the Atlantic Council’s EU-US Forum. It is an enormous challenge for all of us and we must meet it.

BENJAMIN HADDAD: An enormous challenge and there’s a lot of work to do together. With this, Ambassador Sherman, I really want to thank you for your time for this very ambitious tour de raison and wish you good luck for the next few years in partnership with our EU friends.

DEPUTY SECRETARY WENDY SHERMAN: Thank you. It’s been great to be with you, and congratulations again to this tremendous forum that the Atlantic Council has put on. Thank you.


Watch the event

Image: Wendy Sherman arrives at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on April 3, 2015. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Pool via Reuters.