Congressman Peter J. Roskam is in his sixth term representing the 6th District of Illinois and currently serves as the House Ways & Means Health Subcommittee chairman for the 115th Congress. Active on national security issues and promoting America’s role in the world, Rep. Roskam leads the House Democracy Partnership, assisting legislatures in emerging democracies; serves as a co-chair of the House Republican Israel Caucus, the largest Republican congressional organization dedicated to strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship; and serves on the Board of Directors for the National Endowment for Democracy. inFOCUS Editor Shoshana Bryen spoke with him in early June.
inFOCUS: This issue of inFOCUS is about Europe – some of America’s most important relationships are there, but there are issues to resolve. For one, Chancellor Merkel and President Macron are talking about a European defense unit pulling away from us and making Europe separate from us.
Rep. Peter Roskam: Past is prologue in a sense, in that there’s a lot of shared history with Europe, over the last century in particular, and we’ve developed these relationships and are really inextricably linked. Notwithstanding current controversies, there is a body of work here and an intricate level of connection of our security interests that is very, very deep. I think, though, sometimes there’s bravado and provocations and statements for public consumption.
I remember hearing once from one of the French diplomats when we were having a little spat some years ago – remember Freedom Fries? Someone said to him, “Are you concerned about your relationship with the United States?” And the diplomat said, “Of course, I’m not afraid. We’ve had a 200-year relationship with this country, plus.” I think we ought not overreact to different public posturing, because I think the infrastructure and the shared interests are pretty profound. Letting someone voice a level of concern is fine, but I think when push comes to shove, we’ve got so much to offer and a deep level of connectivity that I’m not afraid of the fraying of this relationship.
iF: And you said one of the keywords, which is infrastructure. As you know, not all of our NATO friends meet their NATO commitments, and some of the ones that do are so small that it really doesn’t matter that much. how do we convince the NATO allies that it’s not just a political alliance, but they have to pay and they have to build a bigger military, and they have to be modernized?
Rep. Roskam: Part of the answer is raising the level of the public discussion. This where I think the administration has done a good job. There was always a small group of people that were aware of the diminution of contribution of some of these countries over the years, but there really wasn’t a level of public discussion. Well, when you have the Commander in Chief of the United States raising this at an international level, it’s a focal point. And my sense is that this is influencing other things.
I think it’s having an impact on the discussion where UN Ambassador Nikki] Haley is giving voice to how money is being allocated. There’s a similar theme there; it’s all about the allocation of resources and who’s bearing the burden. But that’s all to say that I think the President giving voice to these things is a very good first step.
When it comes down to it, the Europeans are going to make decisions that are good for the Europeans, but with Russia being as aggressive and provocative as it is, I think the Europeans – when it’s all said and done – will come to the same conclusion, that NATO is a necessary alliance for a threat that hasn’t diminished.
iF: Do you think the United States is ahead of Europe in thinking of Russia as aggressive and threatening in various places?
Rep. Roskam: The Europeans are living closely with this and it’s clearly within their sphere of influence. The type of things we saw in 2008 in Georgia, for example, with South Ossetia and Abkhazia coming under Russian domination, now Crimea, what’s happening in the east in Ukraine, that’s certainly within a European sphere of influence. The provocative nature of the Russians vis-a-vis the Baltics right now, those are messages that are loud and clear.
The type of aggression that the Russians are exercising in terms of soft power – manipulation and trying to influence electoral results – is part of a larger theme. The larger theme is that liberal democracies are under pressure all around the world. I chair an entity in the House called the House Democracy Partnership, and we interact with emerging democracies. In many cases, these are countries under a lot of pressure from authoritarianism: Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Burma, Sri Lanka. And in Europe, we have relationships with Kosovo, Macedonia, and Georgia and Ukraine and we’re interacting on a parliamentary basis with them. While most government-to-government contact is at the executive branch level, we’re trying to make connections at the legislative level. Our theory is that if you have a strong parliament in a country, chances are you have a strong democracy.
Authoritarianism is on the rise and Russia is a big part of this. Basically, the authoritarian challenge to democracies is this: “You [democracies] can’t legislate your way out of a wet paper bag. You can’t resolve big questions, democracies, and the future belongs to the strong man, to the authoritarian.”
I think smart thinkers in Europe recognize these trends and there is an interest on the part of some of the established European nations to try to influence other democracies around the world on the good side of this, the virtuous side of this.
It all comes down to countries clearly operating in their own interest, which is their prerogative. But it’s clearly in the Europeans’ interest to look out over a landscape and not over-interpret what the Russians are doing, but not to under-interpret it or be dismissive of clear acts of aggression.
Ukraine & Estonia
iF: Could you talk more about your relations in Ukraine? How do you see the future? Do they ever get Crimea back? Do you have to move on from that and try to create something in the Ukraine that’s left?
Rep. Roskam: For the United States with Crimea, I think it’s very important for us not to “move on.” If you look at the disposition of the Baltic States today, they were the beneficiaries of the fact that the United States never recognized the Soviet aggression against Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. That was foundational for those countries and they’re better off today as a result of that. And if you interact with those leaders and those big diaspora groups in the Chicago area – and I’ve had that chance – they will tell you they are so deeply appreciative of that. Is it symbolic? Yes, it is symbolic, but symbols matter and this is a significant thing.
I am of the view that Ukraine’s future is really in Ukraine’s hands at this point. The United States in particular, and other western nations, have stepped up in a lot of ways and have been generous in financial support and so forth. But at its core, Ukraine’s foundational problem is corruption. Can it navigate through and get on the other side of a corrupt regime? If it can, then its future is very bright; 50 million people, heart of Europe, all these sorts of things, an unbelievably rich history, and this complicated relationship with the Russians. But they’ve got to deal with the corruption problem themselves.
They’ve made some good moves. They have made improvements in their police, dismissing the entire national police force because it had a reputation for being corrupt. They hired a totally new force, paid them more, created new standards – incredibly successful. They’ve done some good things in terms of judicial reform, which is moving in the right direction. They did very good things in terms of energy subsidies, normalizing some of their energy policies and reducing their dependence on Russia. But Ukraine’s future is in Ukraine’s hands, I think.
iF: The Russians primarily do cyber warfare and those kinds of things against the Baltic states. But if there was a Russian invasion of the Baltic states, is NATO prepared and willing – and willing is a big question – to defend a small country like Estonia?
Rep. Roskam: Yes. History is a merciless disciplinarian and a merciless teacher that suggests you can’t wave off those small provocations. If the United States or the European allies, the NATO allies, equivocate on Article V, it won’t end well. We’re better off defending the things that we’ve pledged to defend, and I have every confidence that we would do that.
iF: Which goes back to the capabilities question. Do we have the ability or do we need to be putting pressure on NATO for more resources? And in the United States as well? We have our own defense problems.
Rep. Roskam: The bipartisan budget act that passed earlier in the year is a tremendous shot in the arm for the United States military. Secretary James Mattis came, communicated what the resources needed to be, and Congress agreed, and that was funded, and that’s great news. So that is really tremendous.
The United States is clearly the senior, the biggest factor in NATO, and by demonstrating that increased level of commitment, I think it’s an invitation for other nations to say, “All right, you’re in, you’re doing what you need to do, U.S.; we’ll match that.” But regardless of what the Europeans do it’s in our interest to make sure that the Baltic states are not subsumed by the Russians.
iF: And I assume we exercise there first of all, to give them some sense that we’re there for them, but also because maybe we believe we’ll need to be there?
Rep. Roskam: Yes, that’s right. And I think that that military presence and the joint exercises and so forth are significant beyond NATO. For example, Georgia is not a NATO country, and yet NATO does training in Georgia. I said to the Georgians one time, “Georgia’s not in NATO, but NATO’s in Georgia, and that’s a good thing.” That NATO presence outside of Tbilisi is a very good thing.
The Iran Deal
iF: Moving to another part of the world, how do we get our NATO allies or our European – forget NATO for a minute – our European allies to come up with a position on Iran that works for us? We’ve staked out a position, a lot of European companies have pulled out of Iran, but the European governments are not interested in our position.
Rep. Roskam: We deal with it by being clear and listening, hearing them. But they’re on a pathway that we shouldn’t be on, so let’s be on a pathway that makes the most sense and I think we’ll be exonerated. Here’s what we know: the Iran deal, the JCPOA was not a good deal at its foundation, and it was flawed in a couple of areas. Number one, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, he wasn’t worried about the Iranians cheating; he was worried about the Iranians sticking with the deal because it was so good for them. It absolutely fulfills their nuclear ambitions.
Second, the sunset issues and the state sponsor of terror issues and their ballistic missile issues are all very, very provocative things. The Trump administration made a decision, I think it was a good decision, to say we’re out of this deal. The statements that the administration issued were interesting. They said we’re going to get out and here’s why; we are going to reimpose sanctions in a very aggressive way, which is key; and then finally, we are open to coming back and revisiting this with Iranian interlocutors if they make a decision that they want to interact with us and come up with a new deal that makes sense. Terrific.
If we were to wait for the Europeans to come around, we would be waiting forever, with all due respect. It’s a good thing the U.S. acted, and my instinct is that we’re going to have a tremendous amount of influence on the commercial side because the only thing that brought the Iranians to the table in the first place was the sanctions regime. Their economy was really, really struggling.; they came to the table. The Obama administration, in my view, mishandled the negotiation, was too hungry for a deal, and ended up with the JCPOA.
If you’re a European country or a European company, you’ve got a decision to make. Do you want to risk getting crossways with U.S. law and the U.S. Treasury Department based on the possibility of selling into a marketplace that is Iran, that is really under tremendous pressure? Or do you want to stay on the safe side of that line? I think many companies are saying, notwithstanding the diplomatic rhetoric coming from their capitals, they want to stay on the safe side of the line and not risk jeopardy with the U.S. Treasury Department.
iF: Any chance that Russia and China will take advantage of a Western pull out and insert themselves into Iran?
Rep. Roskam: I have every expectation that they would try to take advantage of that. There will be a vacuum but it’s not as if they’ve been absent to begin with. So yes, we create a vacuum by pulling out, but it’s not as if they’re newly-provoked to go in. They’re full-in, they’re all-in, and there’s no end in sight there.
iF: Staying in the region, Turkey is still a NATO ally. What do we do with them?
Rep. Roskam: It’s a complicated relationship, isn’t it? I was at a conference in Turkey a few years ago and just was walking around Istanbul, and I was surprised at the number of women on the street whose heads were covered. And this is in, quote, “secular” Turkey. And I have a friend who’s a Christian pastor who explained to his landlord what he did for a living, and the landlord said, “That’s all very interesting. Just don’t tell anybody in the neighborhood what you do.”
That tells me is there is some top-down in terms of Erdoğan and his disposition, but also that some of this is bubbling up; this is grassroots coming up. How do we deal with it? I don’t have an easy answer. On the one hand, Turkey has played a real strategic role for all the obvious reasons: location, Muslim nation, and so forth. Very, very important. And yet there was some foreshadowing of this back in the ‘70s when they invaded Cyprus, which was a shock – that’s not how allies behave toward one another. We have a complicated relationship that is not going to get any less complicated anytime soon.
iF: Do you think that we might actually shoot at each other in Syria over the Kurdish areas?
Rep. Roskam: I don’t have an expectation that that happens, and we’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen. We have to be very clear with them.
Europe, Israel, and BDS
iF: The Europeans seem to want it both ways in terms of Israel. There is a lot of cooperation militarily between the European countries and Israel, and between EUCOM and Israel, between NATO and Israel. On the other hand, there’s this problem of rising anti-Semitism in Europe. How do we square that circle? Is there any way the U.S. can be helpful here?
Rep. Roskam: The BDS movement is really an insidious effort to marginalize Israel, and it has some roots in Europe. We changed the trade laws in the United States, so now it is a stated trade objective of U.S. trade negotiators as they’re interacting with European state counterparts to raise this as an issue. That’s important. This is now not the U.S. simply bringing it up on happenstance. This is now part of the regular trade regime for us to be saying this is a strategic interest of the United States. We want to make sure that our best friend in the region is strong, and we view economic isolation of Israel as being a provocation. The U.S. has been helpful and I believe will continue to be helpful.
iF: Does that give them incentive also to address anti-Semitism in their own countries? Seeing the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany and France is frightening.
Rep. Roskam: It’s frightening and this is just a couple of generations away from terrible events that took place in Europe in the last century, and in memory of people today who lived through that or whose families lived through that. No one can be dismissive about these flashpoints and these trends. And what I observe is what tends to happen is that there will be just one bit of news and we think, “I’m sorry to hear about that.” And then we move on and there is another bit of news, and people say, “Well, I’m sorry to hear about that thing that happened, too. I’m sorry to hear about that.” And then when somebody puts it all together, you realize this is not just bits of news but a trend. We’re seeing something that’s much more aggressive and much more insidious. I have talked to friends who said they’re moving out of France, for example, and they’re moving their families to Israel because they’re Jewish families and they don’t feel safe in France. Well, shame on France for that.
We can continue to give voice. There’s a very strong effort here in Congress; I co-chair the Bipartisan Task force for combating anti-Semitism. We’ve included language as it relates to anti-Semitism in Europe, and we’re seeing flashpoints of it here in the United States as well on American college campuses; not as advanced I would say as we’re seeing in Europe to compare, but when it shows up, it’s awful for the person that is experiencing it. We have to be vigilant. We’ve introduced bipartisan legislation that I have confidence is moving through the House.
In addition, some of the anti-Semitism and the BDS movement has shifted to international organizations. Maybe shifted is not the best way to describe it. Maybe it was already there, but because we’ve dealt with it on the trade side of things, we’re recognizing an opportunity to have an influence there with these international governmental organizations. And again, we’ve got 280-plus co-sponsors, bipartisan in the House that would do the same type of thing that it described on the trade bill.
Nationalism in Central Europe
iF: We see in places like Hungary and Poland, Romania a little bit, the rise of nationalism that is narrowly based and not terribly welcoming of other people. These countries are NATO partners, too; countries we expect to be our best friends. Do you worry about the rise of that kind of nationalism in some of those countries?
Rep. Roskam: Yes. It’s a concern, it’s a flashpoint. The United States has had complicated relationships with a lot of countries for many, many decades, and the level of complexity now is manifesting itself in Central Europe. There are significant things that we’ve got to be mindful of. I’m confident that when it comes down to it, we can continue to articulate the values that we hold dear, and I think one of the ways that we can do that is by being clear and being articulate and being vocal about these things, and not creating a sense of ambiguity or a double standard or a wishy-washiness that allows some of these things to take hold. And when we see them happening, to speak out about them. Because anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred of that caliber get traction through silence. And the United States has the advantage of being a country that people pay attention to.
American diplomats are on the front line, but we also have exchanges back and forth with some frequency, with all kinds of these close relationships that Americans have with Europeans. We have congressional exchanges, we have a whole host of things. So, while diplomats are there and are living in these other countries, there are others among us who can give voice to this.
iF: And I understand the administration is about to name a Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.
Rep. Roskam: That’s right. That’s a good indication of them taking it seriously.
iF: To wrap up, are you optimistic about American relations with Europe? Are you worried?
Rep. Roskam: I’m optimistic. I think we have a strong history, and even when you have bumps and bruises along the way, to take a look at the great trajectory of a shared value system and a deep sense of interconnection between America and Europe, I think our future together is very hopeful.
iF: Thank you for your insights, on behalf of the Jewish Policy Center and the readers of inFOCUS Magazine.