Former Ambassador Shapiro at Bar Ilan University BESA “US Standing in the World” Conference (as prepared)

America’s Enduring Leadership

It is a pleasure to return to Bar Ilan University. I am particularly pleased to join this program of the BESA Center. The American Embassy and BESA have cooperated on numerous fronts over many years. BESA continues to distinguish itself for the excellence and quality of its research products.

It is also an institution deeply rooted in the practice of international affairs. Abstractions are not what you deal in. Policy relevance is the coin of the realm and that is why BESA plays such an important role in the national security community.

You have also distinguished yourselves by putting peacemaking so high on your agenda, as symbolized by the two leaders for whom this institute is named.  As always, Professor Inbar, thank you for your hospitality and for welcoming me here. The Embassy supported your 20th anniversary program last year and I look forward to continued engagement and partnership.

I want to acknowledge my American colleagues, some of whom traveled here for the conference, including my former colleague at the NSC, Steve Simon, and also thank all of the Israeli participants, including some of whom I have been privileged to work with so closely in recent years, likeGeneral Amidror and Uzi Arad. There are a number of international guests here as well, including from India, Europe and elsewhere, and I want to acknowledge their presence.

Given that it is the age of Twitter, I was contemplating a speech of less than 140 characters. In fact, in light of what I know has been some angst expressed  at this conference about U.S. leadership, I was thinking about just standing up here and showing off my favorite T-shirt from the tourist markets in Jerusalem. You know the one, with the F-16 that says: “Don’t Worry, America, Israel is Behind You.”  Come to think of it, we should be seeing the F-35 appearing on those shirts pretty soon.

Yet the truth is, we are, without a doubt, facing and exceedingly complex international strategic picture today.  It is precisely at times like these that American leadership is so vital, and it is precisely because it is so vital that President Obama is providing that leadership.

What I would like to do is to spend some time reflecting on American leadership and its relevance to Israel; then highlight several examples where American leadership is making the difference, including on Arab-Israeli relations; and conclude with a few short comments looking out at the period ahead.

I will also draw on the recent speeches made by Vice President Biden and Secretary Kerry, whom I was privileged to join this weekend in Washington at the Saban Forum.

It is no mystery why Israelis have such a keen interest in evaluating American leadership. Israel’s national security concept centers on the twin necessities of self-reliance and the cultivation of alliances—in particular, great power alliances.

Israel’s founders were sober about the threats—both near and far—that the Jewish state faced. These threats necessitated the establishment of a strong military that could both out-gun and out-smart its rivals. All too often, Israel would have no choice but to wage war, but even when it fought alone–as it did in June 1967 or this past summer–it has never sought to stand alone.

Whether waging war, standing guard in deterrence, or negotiating peace, Israel’s position is immeasurably enhanced through its partnerships and alliances–and supreme among these is Israel’s extraordinary alliance with the United States.

In America’s more difficult moments on the world stage – think of our exit from Vietnam in 1973 – the ripple effects are felt here.  When our power and influence surge, such as after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rising tide benefits allies like Israel.  As General Amidror and others have noted time and again, Israel rightly prioritizes its own interests, but it must also consider its stake in America’s global position. For Israel, America’s global standing is quickly translated into the local context.

When America was attacked on September 11, 2001, Israelis stood by us as only our closest allies could be expected to do. Yet, at the time, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon worried that new strategic imperatives would present America with trade-offs that would increase pressure on Israel to make concessions that ran contrary to its interests. I don’t think that is how it turned out, but that anxiety about being subject to great power concerns and linkage politics is as understandable as it is inevitable.

With so many imminent threats, both on its borders and over-the-horizon, Israelis need to focus on immediate challenges. Life on a razor’s edge makes it harder to focus on broader strategic reflection. And yet, time and again—sometimes in the heat of battle–Israeli leaders do take America’s broader position into account, because America’s standing is itself a high-order, almost existential interest of Israel.

Israel’s founders—from Ben-Gurion and Eshkol to Shamir and Rabin—were keen observers of America’s position on the world stage. Whether it was a distant conflict, like the Korean War in the 1950s, or one closer to home, like the first Gulf War forty years later, leaders here calculated Israel’s strategic equation through the prism of America’s standing.

Before surveying several specific cases, I want to lay out the Administration’s overall framework for global engagement.

In his West Point address in May, President Obama unambiguously affirmed America’s commitment to global leadership. The imperative of American leadership is unquestioned. Intense debates in the U.S. over how tomanage our global role should not be confused with a lack of consensus about maintaining our unique role as a global power. The basic necessity of American leadership is widely unchallenged within our political society.

Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly in September, President Obama made a powerful case that American leadership remains the one constant in an uncertain world. That’s what sets America apart.

The world looks to America to lead. America embraces this responsibility, even as we consider judiciously each case of engagement and intervention, including how other like-minded states will work with us in concert. For the United States, acting decisively and acting legitimately go hand-in-hand.

In the West Point address, the president also reiterated his unwavering commitment to maintaining the United States’ military primacy, and to use force when necessary—sometimes even unilaterally.  He also emphasized our response in such cases should be “proportional and effective and just.”

He also stressed the need to “broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law; and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action.”  “Just because we have the best hammer,” the president said, “does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

In addition to the judicious use of American power and our emphasis on collective action, our vision of American leadership is also that we must lead by example.

This framework is consequentialist at its core. As the president has said consistently since coming to office, this model of American leadership is more effective, more sustainable, and far less likely to lead to interventions gone awry.

In terms of the instruments of American leadership, our framework also includes a renewed commitment to engage at the United Nations. Whether it is supporting peacekeeping in states torn asunder by conflict; inflicting sanctions on terrorist groups and states that violate international norms – like Iran and North Korea; promoting human rights and human dignity; or responding to global health crises, we believe deepening our engagement at the United Nations has been a smart investment.

On this point, Israelis are understandably skeptical, because we all know that Israel does not get a fair shake at the UN. Yet even on issues of concern to Israel, we believe our investment at the UN is helping counter the forces of delegitimization, generating new opportunities, and chipping away at old impediments.

Collective action and partnerships, as National Security Advisor Susan Rice has said, is also the “cornerstone of our counter-terrorism strategy…(it) is designed to meet a threat that is now more diffuse and decentralized.” Whether it is defending the homeland, protecting allies, disrupting al-Qaeda’s networks or ridding the world of Bin Laden, the Administration’s counter-terrorism policy has demonstrated sustained commitment, broadened and deepened partnerships, and racked up considerable successes.

Our soft power is also formidable and is a critical element of this framework. Promoting democracy, championing human rights, supporting free markets, defending religious freedom, safeguarding the rights of women and girls, responding to global health emergencies, combatting anti-semitism or standing up for the rule of law, American leadership is just as central to promoting norms and improving human security as it is to responding to traditional security threats.

As America’s representative in Israel, I am particularly proud that Israel joins us in so many of these efforts: whether it be promoting entrepreneurship as an engine for economic development; nurturing one of the world’s most open societies; confronting the scourge of human trafficking; or defending Gay and Lesbian rights—Israel is our partner in promoting human rights and human security, even in the face of its own extreme security dilemmas.

So, with this overall framework in mind, I would like to lay out a few examples of where American leadership is making the difference today, and in places where no other global player can substitute.

Let me start by focusing on our campaign against ISIL, or Daesh.  In Syria and Iraq, we are taking collective action to counter these violent extremists, who destabilize governments, kill civilians, rape women, and behead hostages. We are doing so with legitimacy and we are drawing upon a broad range of tools.

The United States is currently leading a coalition the likes of which has not been seen since the first Gulf War. It is made up of nations who share our objective to degrade and ultimately destroy Daesh. Numerous countries “have come forward with critical commitments, and many others have expressed strong opposition to Daesh’s campaign of terror and of horror,” Secretary Kerry said recently. “The world is united against this threat.”

America is not alone in this fight. In Brussels last week, Secretary Kerry chaired a ministerial meeting of this coalition with some 60 nations represented.  Six months ago, this coalition did not even exist, and many scarcely recognized the threat of Daesh.  U.S. leadership has brought it to the fore.

Behind the scenes, our military is engaged in the painstaking work of transforming this political coalition into a battlefield alliance. Already, multiple Arab partners and NATO allies have taken part in the air campaign against Daesh.

Since the summer, using airstrikes and support for the ground forces of our regional partners, we have been able to shrink the territory under Daesh’s control and halt many of its advances. We are providing military advisers to the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga, who have improved their battlefield performance. Through quiet, intensive diplomacy we have also pushed for a more inclusive Iraqi government and for a solution to the crippling dispute over oil revenues.

We are also increasing our support to vetted Syrian opposition units, so Syrians do not have to choose between “a tyrant and the terrorists,” as Secretary Kerry said this weekend. We are drawing upon our existing counterterrorism capabilities to cut off funding and stem the flow of foreign fighters to Daesh. We are leading the effort to track and prevent those fighters who return home from spreading terror elsewhere.

In the public arena, we are exposing the hypocrisy of Daesh’s absurd religious claims and its barbaric behavior that is antithetical to Islamic values. America is also leading the humanitarian response, providing assistance to the millions of Syrian and Iraqi civilians who are in desperate need and bolstering front-line countries that have been overwhelmed by refugee flows.

We are prepared for a long fight and understand it is a complex battlefield.

I also want to point out a critical threat that has not materialized during this campaign; a dog that didn’t bark. The current fight against Daesh is taking place in a context on which the vast majority of Syria’s chemical weapons–and the infrastructure used to create one of the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles–was peacefully dismantled and destroyed over the past year.

This achievement was the result of the credible threat of American military force, which created a diplomatic opening to strike a deal with Russia, and the building of a strong international coalition to carry out the extraction and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons.  Had we not secured this outcome, the fight against Daesh could have been even more dangerous and deadly, including for Israel.

Next I would like to address the Iranian nuclear negotiations, which have now been extended into 2015.  In this effort, the United States is similarly taking the lead in generating collective action. We are also garnering broad international support and drawing on a wide range of diplomatic tools in support of our objective.

President Obama has stated the objective unequivocally–and he also said it here in Israel in no uncertain terms: The United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, period.  And we will use all elements of our power to achieve this objective.

For the United States, and I believe for Israel, the preferred route to achieve this objective has always been, and remains, a negotiated outcome. “A diplomatic solution,” as Vice President Biden emphasized on Saturday, still represents “the best and most sustainable” path to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.  At the same time, we have ensured that we have a credible military option as well.

Vice President Biden laid out the logic of the negotiations in his public remarks this past Saturday.  First, we built the most crippling regime of sanctions ever imposed against any nation.  That brought Iran to the table.  Then, with our P5+1 partners, we reached the Joint Plan of Action interim agreement one year ago.

That agreement ensured that we would not have to negotiate with a gun to our head, by freezing key elements of the Iranian nuclear program, including its upper-level enrichment and installation of advanced centrifuges, and rolling back others, like dismantling its stockpile of enriched uranium.

The JPOA provided very modest sanctions relief, but otherwise maintained the economic stranglehold on Iran.  We have engaged other world powers and conducted vigorous enforcement actions, designating dozens of companies, which helps to explain how we have been able to hold the line on international sanctions over the past year.

Did international companies and investors rush in last year, as skeptics suggested they might? No, there’s been no gold rush. With our economic choke-hold still in place, most smart investors continue to keep Iran at arm’s length.  And as oil prices drop, the pressure on Iran only intensifies.

Throughout these negotiations, have we had our disagreements with Israel on certain tactical questions? Yes, there’s no doubt. But these disagreements come within the broader context of our total alignment on the broader strategic imperative, and our close and intimate dialogue that runs in parallel to the P5+1 process.

In fact, I was in Washington in late October for the latest meeting of the U.S.-Israel Consultative Group—our most senior level coordination mechanism on Iran and other regional issues–and I can tell you first-hand that our dialogue on this question is second to none, and has kept us aligned and informed our negotiating strategy.

And we are both in agreement that no deal is better than a bad deal.  The evidence for this is the decision to extend negotiations last month.  Iran simply was not prepared to make the necessary concessions to provide certainty that it would never acquire a nuclear weapon.  We believe a deal is still possible, and our international partners remain united, so an extension was the right decision.  But there will only be a deal, and Iran can only achieve the relief from sanctions it seeks, if it shows more flexibility in the negotiations ahead.

Outside this region, one of the gravest challenges we face has been the crisis over Ukraine. War and armed conflict have returned to Europe. As a popular movement for freedom, good governance and democracy was confronted by outright military aggression and subtler forms of coercion, it was left to the United States to rally the world against Moscow’s revanchism.

Neither the new democracies of East and Central Europe nor the European Union were in a position to confront Russia without U.S. leadership.

We did not flinch and we have stood by our allies and partners. The United States has mobilized opposition to Putin’s aggression; we have bolstered Ukraine’s independent, freely elected government; we have deterred a broader conflict and we have imposed stiff costs on Russia.

At the United Nations, we rallied one hundred states to declare Russia’s annexation of Crimea illegal. Within the NATO alliance, we have reinforced our commitments to front line states and increased our military presence.

When a civilian airliner was tragically shot down this summer—an act of murder on a grand scale—the United States reacted swiftly and built a coalition that ensured international access to the crash site and put the perpetrators on the defensive.

For months, through often painstaking efforts, we have convinced dozens of states to follow our lead on economic sanctions, measures that have sent the Russian economy reeling. In this case, it is U.S. leadership that ensured it would not be business-as-usual and that Russia will continue to pay a significant, and rising, cost for its aggression.

Perhaps few international challenges crystalize the unique demands on America’s leadership position today more than the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus in three West African nations, a global public health challenge of the highest order. Thousands have died and potentially tens of thousands or more could be infected. It is also decimating health providers, the very front-line of any response to a massive outbreak.

Given the limited capacity of the affected states to respond, and the risk of the spread of the virus, the crisis has cried out for an international collective response. Again, the United States is leading. We are pursuing collective action and drawing on a wide range of tools.

We could easily hide behind two great oceans, but have instead chosen to act. Nearly 3,000 American service members are now in West Africa, augmenting what was a small force of several hundred, sent less than three months ago. We have committed hundreds of millions of dollars in new assistance and made sure hundreds of health care providers and disaster response experts are trained and take up their positions on the ground.

Beyond our own contributions, American leadership has pushed Europeans, the U.N. and others to stretch their own capabilities leading to a sum total – although still inadequate—that is catching up to the threat.

Ebola has no greater friend than fear,” said my colleague and our representative to the United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, who was one of the first international figures to travel to West Africa and put a face on America leadership. We are leading by example to confront that fear and defeat this global threat.

In East Asia, as economic and political change intensifies, the United States is reinforcing American leadership in that vital region. Whether it is bolstering collective security commitments to allies like Korea or Japan; deepening our engagement with regional institutions like ASEAN; confronting North Korean provocations with a strong and united international coalition; or engaging emerging powers like China in hard-nosed bargaining; America is leading.

“Generations of Americans have served and died in the Asia Pacific so that the people of the region might live free,” President Obama said in Australia a few weeks ago, “so no one should ever question our resolve or our commitment to our allies.”

China is a good example of where the Adminsitration has worked intensively to develop a “new model” of relations that would avoid the historic trap of strategic rivalry.

We saw this on display at the Sunnylands summit between President Obama and President Xi, and then again during the President’s visit to China last month.  These efforts are bearing fruit, in the agreements reached on reducing emissions that cause climate change and on cutting tariffs on information technology.

We are also strengthening ties with other key regional players, like Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Burma, all of which want to deepen their ties with the U.S.

Here, in Israel, attention is understandably focused on challenges closer to home.

Generations of Israelis know of our enduring investment in Israel’s security and in the pursuit of peace between Israel and its neighbors. These remain sacred commitments, affirmed by multiple presidents, supported by the U.S. Congress, and cherished by the American people.

American leadership in support of Israel can be measured through the deep ties and joint training between our militaries; our unprecedented intelligence cooperation, which makes both of us safer; our fight to defend Israel from delegitimization in international organizations; and our investment in life-saving, cutting edge defense systems like Iron Dome and Arrow.

It can also be measured through our leveraging of global relationships to generate broader support for a two-state solution; through the building of coalitions to confront terrorism on Israel’s borders; and through America’s ongoing economic and security assistance to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority—which we have sustained for decades at unprecedented levels, and which contributes greatly to regional stability.

President Obama and his Administration are constantly striving to identify new opportunities to nurture and sustain opportunities for peace and security. Israelis experienced it during President Obama’s historic visit to Israel last year. In his speech in Jerusalem, he made the simple but profound argument—that peace is necessary; peace is just; and, most importantly to those who might give in to despair, peace is possible.

I experienced it first-hand through the president’s personal engagement in the diplomacy during the Gaza conflicts in 2012 and again this past summer, and his commitment to stop the onslaught of rockets and the terror tunnels attacks targeting Israel. You have seen this commitment up close every time Secretary Kerry visits the region, drawn by his strong desire to help Israelis and Palestinians resolve their conflict.

Our leadership role was on full display last month when Secretary Kerry made an urgent visit to Amman to meet with Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian leaders, including a trilateral meeting with King Abdullah and Prime Minister Netanyahu, to work toward restoring calm and de-escalating tensions in Jerusalem.

Echoing the messages you heard from Secretary Kerry and the White House, I want to restate the United States’ firm belief in the importance of maintaining the status quo at the city’s holy sites.  During these recent, tense weeks, my government has remained in close contact with all parties and we are exploring a range of ways in which we can support further de-escalation in Jerusalem and beyond.  Stability and calm are imperative.

It is also worth restating the core principle that violence and terrorism are unacceptable.  The United States has repeatedly condemned recent terrorist attacks, including the horrific attacks at the light rail stations, in which innocents were murdered, and the abhorrent attempt to kill Yehuda Glick; a spate of recent stabbings; and the brutal murders in the synagogue in Har Nof. There is never a justification for murder and terror.

But in thinking about the value of continuing to pursue an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, consider for a moment how much more difficult it would be to unwind what has transpired in recent weeks without the safety net of longstanding Arab-Israeli peace agreements, however incomplete and imperfect. It is in our interests to expand this circle.

That resolution, of course, will only come about through direct negotiations.  Unilateral actions, whether Palestinian initiatives at the United Nations or Israeli settlement construction and announcements, are counterproductive and only delay a resolution.

And while we are realistic that negotiations will not likely resume during an Israeli election campaign, we also continue to explore the most effective way to re-establish a political horizon, without which we believe the current atmosphere could quickly deteriorate.

But the main reason we remain committed to achieving a two-state solution is that we see no alternative that would achieve Israelis’ and Palestinians’ legitimate goals, and that would protect our own interests.  Simply put, as Secretary Kerry said on Sunday, “there is no one-state alternative.”

There is no other solution “that is viable or that would preserve Israel’s status as a Jewish state and a democracy.”  For all the understandable doubts harbored by Israelis and Palestinians, there is no alternative, and we believe it can be done.  So we are committed to keeping that hope alive.

Israelis follow American politics closely, whether during mid-term or Presidential elections. Since our mid-terms last month, much ink has been spilled about what the results mean for the next two years. Here is a caution, lest anyone jump to conclusions: divided government, in which one party controls Congress and the other the Executive Branch, does not necessarily mean foreign policy gridlock.

What is unmistakable about our foreign policy system is that the Constitution provides the President with the largest share of power.  Congress plays a critical role, but history shows that, whether faced with domestic political gridlock or not, presidents often surge and engage even more intensively in national security affairs in their final years in office.

President Reagan delved deeper and deeper into arms control negotiations and agreements with the Soviet Union. He increased the U.S. force posture in the Persian Gulf and in his very last days in office, initiated a dialogue with the PLO.

President George H.W. Bush launched a major humanitarian intervention in Somalia just before leaving office.

President Clinton led a NATO military intervention in Kosovo. He repeatedly confronted Iraqi aggression, engaged intensively in Arab-Israeli peacemaking up until his final days in office, and tried to mount a rapprochement with North Korea.

President George W. Bush launched the “surge” in Iraq, and then the Annapolis peace negotiations.

Today, there is no shortage of crises and threats. There also no doubt in my mind that President Obama will remain deeply and personally engaged in national security affairs through these remaining two years, advancing our interests in every region, and using the full range of tools at our disposal, including consultations with Congress and acting on his own authority.

I have tried to outline today a framework for enduring U.S. global leadership.  But I many ways, I have only scratched the surface.  Consider for a moment that our military remains forward deployed in many parts of the world, extraordinarily capable, and more powerful than its next-in-line competitors by several orders of magnitude. Our energy security position has never looked stronger. Our higher education system continues to draw the best and the brightest from every corner of the globe. Our economic recovery is expanding rapidly. In short, American strength and resilience are alive and well.

Just try to imagine what the Middle East and the world at large would look like today without American leadership. Imagine what your neighborhood would look like without the longstanding American commitment to enhance the possibilities for peace and security:


  • without the campaign to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons;


  • without the partnerships we established and sustain with the moderate regimes of the region;


  • without the campaign we are leading against Daesh and other violent extremists;


  • without our constant defense of Israel’s security and legitimacy; and,


  • without the ongoing quest for a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.


It is not a world any of us want to live in.  And with continued American leadership we will not have to.

Let me pause here, as I know Ephraim wants to join me and use the remaining time for your questions and to engage in a dialogue. Thank you.