PantherNOW Exclusive: Interview with US Deputy Secretary of State Brian P. McKeon

McKeon speaks during the special event for careers in foreign policy and government at FIU. Diego Diaz / PantherNOW

Diego Diaz and Michael McEwen / Assistant News Directors 

While visiting FIU as part of a nationwide recruiting drive for the State Department, Deputy Secretary of State Brian McKeon spoke with PantherNOW reporters Diego Diaz and Michael McEwen regarding several U.S. foreign policy positions, extending from the war in Ukraine to concerns in the region. The following is a transcript of the interview in full.

Diego Diaz has been abbreviated to DD, Michael McEwen has been abbreviated to MM and US Deputy Secretary of State Brian P. McKeon has been abbreviated to BM.

DD: First, we thought it’d be important to talk about the main foreign policy priorities of the U.S., considering we’re seeing multiple different fronts they have taken on the international stage. Obviously, the most important at the moment, and the most present, is Ukraine. In that regard, we were curious to hear your take as to what has been the executive office’s position towards calls for a no-fly zone over Ukraine? We’ve seen that President Biden does not want to take the direct approach towards the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, and we’ve seen more and more that it is not necessarily inevitable, but seems closer to being part of the picture.

BM: Well, the President’s been very clear that he doesn’t support a no-fly zone or direct U.S. military intervention in this conflict because we don’t seek an armed conflict with Russia. What we are doing is opposing Russia’s unjust, illegal invasion of Ukraine and supporting the government of Ukraine with military equipment and political support through votes we’ve had in the UN system, and economic support and humanitarian assistance.

DD: And on that front, how hopeful is the White House looking at negotiations after recent news of the poisoning of three negotiators with the Ukrainian delegation, and the poisoning seems similar to the other actions Russia has taken in the past, notably with the spy in England. So I was curious, does the U.S. view negotiations between Russia and Ukraine as hopeful, or are they looking more at the long term picture?

BM: Well, what we support is an end to the war, and a negotiated outcome would be a good one provided one that Ukrainians accept and make a sovereign decision to pursue, but it’s hard to negotiate with a gun to your head. So ideally, there should be a ceasefire. Russia can stop this war at any minute. They started it and they could end by withdrawing.

MM:  Some have expressed that various forms of aid provided by the U.S. to Ukraine following Russia’s invasion of Crimea might have perhaps drawn Russia in to some extent, or that it perhaps incentivized Putin to go on the offensive. In retrospect, do you have any thoughts on how the U.S. might have handled Ukraine differently back in 2014 based on where we are now?

BM: Well, in 2014, the Russians invaded Crimea and purported to annex it, and they supported irregular forces in eastern Ukraine in the area called the Donbass and tried to claim a stake in supporting the elements there. In response, the United States and other countries provided assistance and training to Ukraine to help them defend their sovereign territory, which is their right to do as an independent nation and member of the United Nations. The fact is this war was unprovoked and started by Russia. There were diplomatic efforts in December, January and February by the United States and NATO to try to head off a war. The President spoke to President Putin several times–even in the last weekend before the war started, the president of France called President Putin and President Biden and said, ‘Let’s get together,’ and President Biden said, ‘Okay, I’m willing to do that.’ Secretary of State Blinken was scheduled and prepared to meet the Russian Foreign Minister in Geneva on Feb. 24, the day the war started. So we went the last mile to try to resolve this diplomatically, as did the Ukrainians, so I do not believe that we or Ukraine are responsible for this war. Russia is.

MM:  Moving towards the Western Hemisphere, what is the level of concern over Russian influence in Latin America, specifically in Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela? Has that changed in the last month?

BM: Well, it’s telling that Russia’s allies in this in this region are also autocratic governments that suppress the rights of their citizens in the same way that Russia does, but even Russia has been somewhat isolated from them insofar as when the United Nations General Assembly voted to denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a couple of a few weeks ago, both Cuba and Nicaragua abstained, and that silence has a sound, which is that they didn’t support or endorse what Russia did.

DD: Regarding that, there have been reports detailing the U.S. delegation’s efforts towards  Venezuela. Are there interests beyond Venezuela’s oil sector? Is there an interest in pulling away one of Putin’s last remaining allies within Latin America?

BM: Well, our interests in Venezuela are to try to see a restoration of a democracy and a democratic government that results from free and fair elections. Our policy objective is to support the Venezuelan people in finding this path forward and to get away from the autocratic system that has evolved in the last several years. It would be a benefit to also no longer have a Russian ally like Venezuela in the hemisphere, but what we’re focused on is the benefit of the Venezuelan people.

DD: So it’d be better to say that, at least in the moment, the White House believes that having a democratic Venezuela would innately start pushing Venezuela away from the Russian sphere of influence?

BM: I think that would be a natural result, yes. 

DD:  We were curious as to the role the U.S. has been playing in regards to the political situation in Haiti of the past several months. Recently, a former Haitian senator was extradited to the U.S. for his involvement in the assassination of former president Moïse. Besides democratic stability, are there other interests driving U.S. involvement in Haiti?

BM: No, we are working and encouraging the political leaders and civil society leaders in Haiti to find a path forward to democratic elections, and they haven’t found that path yet. So we’re working to encourage all the parties to find a way forward. And it means at the same time, we’re providing assistance to help the Haitians with security because there are a lot of security challenges in the country, with a lot of gangs and a lot of people with guns. And so our department, the State Department, provides assistance to the Haitian National Police in the form of equipment and training. To have an election, you’re going to have to have some modicum of security.

MM: Has that training changed at all with the reality that the leader of Haiti’s largest gang confederation was an anti-gang police officer trained by the United States previously?

BM: So I’m not steeped in how we’ve done this training and how it’s evolved over the decades in Haiti. It’s not something I’ve worked on directly, but the way that we have traditionally done it from the State Department is providing certain equipment to enable a police department to exist, whether it’s uniforms, bulletproof vests or material. But also, training is usually conducted by police officers from the United States or other Western countries on modern policing methods. So we’ve done that over the years in Haiti and elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere.

MM: Is there any concern within the State Department with the current political situation in Haiti that extends beyond former Senator Joseph’s extradition? The former special envoy to Haiti, who resigned in protest of U.S. policy toward Haitian asylum seekers in September, has also been vocal in his criticisms and doubts over Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s role not only in assassination, but also removing two justice ministers in the wake of the investigation into the assasination plot. With that in mind, how likely is it to reach a sustainable solution in Haiti?

BM: So our objective is, as I said, to have Haitian political actors including Prime Minister Henry and civil society come together as a way forward to conduct elections in a secure environment. That’s a critical first step to try to help the Haitians sustain, over the long term, a democratic system that is stable and delivers economic benefits for its people. That’s obviously a long-term project, but the first start is to improve the security and political situation so that you have an elected government that has the support of the people.

DD: Coming back to FIU…considering FIU’s recent inauguration into the Association of Professional of International Relations (APSIA), a prestigious organization, home to international relations powerhouses like Princeton, Duke, and Harvard, with FIU’s intelligence fellowships and partnership with the U.S.’s intelligence sector following the Sept. 11 attack and now with the recent visit from Samantha Powers, head of US Agency for International Development, does the State Department view FIU as a new reliable pipeline for future officers and employees?

BM: Well, I have an alumnus of FIU on my staff who’s here with us today. And so the short answer to your question is yes, because we see FIU is a large Hispanic-serving institution and one of our objectives in recruiting for the future is to make sure that we have a diverse pipeline of people who are taking the Foreign Service exam or seeking jobs in the civil service, so that we can meet the President’s objective of a government that looks like America. And so to come to a place like this, which is a very, very large and vibrant university, a relatively new international affairs school now joining the ranks that you said of APSIA is an exciting possibility to try to interest people in public service and working for the government and foreign policy.

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