Ambassador Thomas Shannon is described by colleagues as a member of Secretary of State John Kerry’s inner circle. He calls himself a “utility infielder” on Kerry’s team, and last week he was in Cairo talking with Egyptian officials about economic issues. He is currently counselor of the State Department; he previously served as ambassador to Brazil, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and held various positions on the National Security Council. In 2012, President Barack Obama conferred upon Shannon the rare rank of career ambassador, for distinguished service.Cairo Review Managing Editor Scott MacLeod interviewed Shannon in Cairo on April 3, 2014.
—Middle East: Shannon rejected criticism that Kerry’s Middle East policy is “delusional.” Kerry persists in engaging intractable problems because “if we can find a way to advance them, to generate some progress, it unlocks a whole world of possibilities.”
—Syria: Shannon says the Geneva process has “hit a rough patch.” He says greater support for the opposition is “part of the debate,” and while the administration has feared internationalizing the conflict, “as we get deeper into this conflict, and as the toll of this conflict mounts, we’re going to have to reevaluate that point of view on almost a daily basis.” The ultimate solution: “President Assad has to go.”
—Egypt: “We’re encouraged that Egypt is headed towards a presidential election. We were encouraged by the new constitution. We were encouraged by the vote on the referendum. And we hope that this upcoming election will show itself to be free and fair.” U.S.-Egypt relations are “strong” and “resilient.”
—Israeli-Palestinian negotiations: Despite setbacks, “we have to keep pushing them together and insisting they find a way to resolve this dispute. I’m not sure I would use your word “hopeful” for much of anything that we do in this business, but I do think that we’re determined, so we’re going to keep at it.”
—On the possible release of American spy Jonathan Pollard as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal: “Not that I am aware of.”
—Iran nuclear talks: The U.S. is seeking to determine whether Iran is making a “strategic shift” in its foreign policy, but “we don’t know yet.”
—Russia: Moscow’s annexation of Crimea is a “mistake of historic proportions.” The “big challenge” is whether it will affect U.S.-Russian cooperation on broader issues including Syria.
The full interview:
CAIRO REVIEW: Difficult time for American foreign policy?
THOMAS SHANNON: Challenging time.
CAIRO REVIEW: You are a diplomat. Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post just wrote a blistering piece, calling Secretary Kerry’s Middle East approaches “delusional.” Are things not working out according to what Secretary Kerry may have expected?
THOMAS SHANNON: Let me say a few things about Secretary Kerry. He has a motto, of sorts, which is: “Play big, or go home.” He obviously believes that when President Obama asked him to be his secretary of state, that he did so with the purpose of having the secretary of state and the State Department engaged on the toughest, the most intractable, issues that the United States faced. Because those are the issues that, if we can find a way to advance them, to generate some progress, it unlocks a whole world of possibilities. Of course, some of these issues are here in the Middle East.
As we look at larger global challenges, we recognize that we need to find a way to ensure that there is a basis for peaceful engagement here in the region that will allow us to attend to really demanding issues elsewhere in the world, whether it is the emergence of China and India into global politics and the global economy, whether it is the emergence of a whole second tier set of countries that are going to be crucial to world governance over the next bunch of years, or other large trends that are roiling the waters of the world. So as the president has looked for a way to pull us out of Iraq, to pull us out of Afghanistan, and to a certain extent to unwind the security implications of 9/11 and get us looking forward into the twenty-first century, part of that, as the president laid out in his UN speech, involves focusing on Syria, focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and focusing on Iran. And with the hope being that if we can find some forward movement on those issues, that this is going to allow us to engage more successfully elsewhere. I would say that Jackson Diehl is about as wrong as he can be. The secretary and the president have a broader vision of the United States in the twenty-first century. But also a clear understanding of what they need to do to get there. And they are attempting to get there piece by piece.
CAIRO REVIEW: But, is it attainable?
THOMAS SHANNON: We’re going to have to see. At the end of the day, the United States is not going to be the one that solves the problem. The parties involved are going to have to find ways to solve the problem. What we have done, whether it’s in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, or whether it’s through the Geneva process and other efforts to address what’s happening inside of Syria, is look for ways to bring people to the table, or to change a scenario on the ground that allows for negotiated solutions to conflicts that have had devastating impacts on society. That is our job. Our job is to mediate, to facilitate, and to try to find ways to solve problems, recognizing that we might not solve them immediately, or we might not solve them in the way we first anticipated, but that only through engagement are we going to understand the true contours of the problem, and only through engagement are we going to find a solution.
CAIRO REVIEW: Then, in Syria, what do you see as the next steps?
THOMAS SHANNON: Obviously, the Geneva process has hit a rough patch, because of the way fighting on the ground has moved. And, fighting on the ground has been affected by a variety of factors, some external, and some internal to Syria. What’s important about this, and [Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs] Anne Patterson laid this out recently in testimony she gave to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is that the co-relation of forces in Syria has been changing over time, and it has changed back and forth in several instances. So I don’t think we’re in a period right now where there’s any kind of clear or long-term direction for the conflict. What we need to have, and I think Geneva provides this, is a context and a forum where when both parties decide they need to engage in negotiations, we in the international community are there to help them.
CAIRO REVIEW: But what’s the solution? They could talk themselves blue for decades before you have a political agreement, but meanwhile you have huge human rights violations and a massive refugee crisis.
THOMAS SHANNON: I think we’ve been clear about what we think the final solution is: President Assad has to go. There needs to be a very different kind of government inside of Syria. But again, this is something that the Syrians themselves are going to have to address, in one fashion or another.
CAIRO REVIEW: Russia is part of the Syrian crisis, pouring arms into the country to support the Assad regime in contradiction of the American vision of the solution in Syria. How do you deal with the internationalization of the crisis, especially at a time when President Putin is moving into Ukraine.
THOMAS SHANNON: One of the challenges for our diplomacy and for Russian diplomacy at this point is to determine whether or not what Russia has done in Crimea is something that is going to affect all aspects of our relationship with Russia, or whether there are going to be ways that we can continue to work with Russia, whether it be in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, whether it be in Syria, or whether it be in any other number of international fora. Obviously it has had a profound impact on how Russia relates to Europe. And it has had a profound impact on how we understand our relationship with Russia in Europe. The big challenge here is going to be whether or not it has an impact in the Iran talks, and whether it has an impact in Syria. Remember, that although we might not have a common vision for a way out of the Syrian process, we have been working together around chemical weapons inside of Syria. Up to this point, that has been a successful collaboration.
CAIRO REVIEW: Has Crimea started to affect cooperation on Syria?
THOMAS SHANNON: We’re still talking to them about Syria. Secretary Kerry is talking to Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov regularly on a whole range of issues. So, at this point, we’ve been able to maintain the dialogue and maintain a Russian presence on this issue, but we’re going to have to see going forward whether we’re able to do that.
CAIRO REVIEW: Syria was a Cold War battlefront for decades. Even after the Cold War, Russia has been, along with Iran, the backer of this particular regime in the Middle East. America has obviously been on the other side of that. It seems that cooperation will be very hard, especially with Putin grinding in like this.
THOMAS SHANNON: I wouldn’t describe what’s happing in Syria right now as a Cold War conflict. Russia’s interests in Syria are not Soviet interests. I think if you are looking at external influences in Syria that are determinative, I don’t think that Russian influence is the determinative factor. I think that the Iranian and Hezbollah presence on the side of the government, and then the foreign fighter presence on the side of the opposition, are the determinative external [factors]. In order to fight, you need fighters, and you need advisors and you need strategists.
CAIRO REVIEW: Should the United States be countering Russian and Iranian support for Assad with greater military support for the opposition on the ground?
THOMAS SHANNON: This is part of the debate that is taking place in Washington and elsewhere. It was and has been our belief up to this point that internationalizing this conflict was only going to create greater heartache and bloodshed for the Syrian people. And that our purpose, and the larger purpose of the international community, had to be to pull the fighters apart, and try to find ways first to address the humanitarian issues that this conflict has generated, but then to find way to put both parties at the table and look for a negotiated solution. Which, from our point of view, would facilitate Assad’s departure, and create some new kind of government inside of Syria more reflective of Syria’s broader popular interests. Obviously, as we get deeper into this conflict, and as the toll of this conflict mounts, we’re going to have to reevaluate that point of view on almost a daily basis.
CAIRO REVIEW: Diplomacy doesn’t seem to be working.
THOMAS SHANNON: Like so many conflicts, time is going to be needed. This is really about how Syrians relate to each other. We’re going to have to determine whether there is a way forward in the negotiating process, or not.
CAIRO REVIEW: Do you have a timeline for that? When do you say, “This isn’t working. We need to pour more….”
THOMAS SHANNON: No, we don’t have a timeline. It is not about time, it is about events. This is more a baseball game, not a soccer or a hockey game. Not to trivialize it, but what I mean is that it’s driven by events and not by time.
CAIRO REVIEW: Here in Egypt, we have had dramatic events over the past seven or eight months. A democratically elected president was removed by the military after a popular uprising. Very likely a military man will be the next leader of the country. An estimated 16,000 people detained without trial, various curbs on freedoms. Is this the direction the U.S. hoped that Egypt would move in?
THOMAS SHANNON: Egypt has its own destiny, and its own direction, and it’s up to the Egyptian people to determine what that’s going to be. Our purpose throughout this period has, first of all, been to highlight the importance of our long-term strategic relationship with Egypt, and to understand the important role that Egypt has played in maintaining broader peace in the Middle East. But in the process, determine how we can help Egypt through this period of political transition, you might even say political transformation. And, we’re encouraged that Egypt is headed towards a presidential election. We were encouraged by the new constitution. We were encouraged by the vote on the referendum. And we hope that this upcoming election will show itself to be free and fair, and will create a basis not only for the government that will be elected, but will create a basis for Egypt to engage broadly with its international partners with a democratically elected government. Obviously in the course of this process, there are a variety of issues, and you have mentioned some of them already, that we have found troubling. And we have been engaging with Egyptians around these issues, as have Egypt’s other partners. But these are not things that are going to be solved overnight. They are going to be solved through engagement, and through Egypt’s broader transformation. So we believe that we have to accompany Egypt through this process, and engage with in it in as direct and truthful way as we can.
CAIRO REVIEW: How would you describe the state of the relations right now?
THOMAS SHANNON: I think it is a strong relationship. It has shown itself to be strong—in fact, I would use the word resilient—over time. It has been able to adapt to the changes that have taken place. But Egypt is on the cusp of a very different kind of future, as it looks into the twenty-first century and tries to find a democratic pathway. And as it does so, and as it looks for ways to respond to broader popular interests and concerns, it is going to go through an internal process of reshaping its own understanding of its national interests. And that will present work for Egypt’s diplomats and for United States diplomats in fashioning a relationship that builds off a strong history, but is really looking into the future.
CAIRO REVIEW: It’s a peculiar moment for the United States. You have democracy activists upset with the U.S. for not more strongly supporting democracy. Others, perhaps a majority, supporting the military takeover and very supportive of Field Marshall El-Sisi, are upset that the United States has not more fully embraced this transition. Both sides are upset.
THOMAS SHANNON: We joke that if everybody’s mad at us, we must be doing something right. On a more serious note, this is reflective of what is happening inside of Egypt. It highlights the fact that Egyptians are unsure about their future direction. They are trying to chart a path for themselves. In this period of uncertainty and anxiety, the tendency is to look outward for causes. We have been such a close partner for so long, we are the easiest target. We accept that. We take it first of all as a sign of how engaged we have been, but we also take it as a clear indication that the Egyptians continue to want to engage with us. From our point of view, that is a good basis to start off.
CAIRO REVIEW: Israeli-Palestinian negotiations don’t seem to be going well. Is the United States really contemplating releasing Jonathan Pollard as part of a peace deal?
THOMAS SHANNON: Not that I am aware of.
CAIRO REVIEW: It’s getting a lot of press.
THOMAS SHANNON: Many things get press. Again, the secretary is quite determined to drive this process as far as it can be driven. He believes clearly that both sides understand not only the importance of this, but ultimately what needs to be done. Both sides have done everything possible to avoid each other for quite some time. The United States has been complicit in this through its absence. He has decided that the United States needs to be engaged, that we need to play an aggressive mediating and facilitating role, and that effectively we have to constantly remind both of our parties in this process, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, that the consequences of continuing this kind of no-agreement state are ultimately damaging to both. Effectively giving them nowhere to hide and nowhere to run. As with other conflicts, the most we can do is mediate and facilitate. It really is up to both parties to decide to come to terms. The events over the past several days are not what we had hoped for: the disagreements between Israel and Palestine over the Israeli release of prisoners, and then the Palestinian decision to request country or state status within a variety of UN organizations. As challenging and even frustrating as these moves have been, they continue to show just how important our engagement is. So we’re going to just keep pushing.
CAIRO REVIEW: Secretary Kerry had floated the idea that maybe by April 2014 there might be positive results from this, and now we are in April. Is this another process that we can’t see a realistic timeline for now?
THOMAS SHANNON: The secretary’s point of view is that this is going to be determined by the players themselves. But that we can’t step away from this process. We have to keep pushing them together and insisting they find a way to resolve this dispute. While these recent events have been disappointing, they can’t take from us what has been a very purposeful diplomacy. I’m not sure I would use your word “hopeful” for much of anything that we do in this business, but I do think that we’re determined, so we’re going to keep at it.
CAIRO REVIEW: Is there a risk that this determination without results actually undermines American prestige and leverage in the region.
THOMAS SHANNON: That’s a good question. This has been part of the back-and-forth in several administrations. At one point, the Bush administration decided to step away from the whole process. That was done for several reasons. One was a kind of tiredness with the disputes. Others had to do with some real concerns in the administration about the non-democratic nature of leadership on the part of the Palestinian side. That has changed now with the current leadership of the Palestinian authority. So the determination of President Obama and Secretary Kerry to engage I think has actually enhanced American prestige and status in the region, and has shown clearly that we’re back in a significant way, in addressing a problem that resonates throughout the region. We want to see this thing resolved. I don’t think we gain much by walking away from this.
CAIRO REVIEW: How do you deal with the hit the administration is taking from quarters in Israel and within the American Jewish community for its policy? A lot of people would like to see a more hands-off approach.
THOMAS SHANNON: This is all about trying to resolve a dispute which has endured for decades and which has had a very corrosive impact throughout the Middle East. Our willingness in attempts to try to create a basis on which it can be resolved is important. It so profoundly challenges how both sides understand themselves, and how they understand their relationship to each other, and it so upsets constituencies that have developed around the status quo, it is going to be not only politically challenging but psychologically and emotionally challenging. That’s part of diplomacy. Much of what we do is a form of cognitive therapy, a form of helping people understand reality differently and look for solutions to problems that might not otherwise be apparent. And sometimes in this kind of environment allowing people to sit in a status quo guarantees no solution. You have to break them out of their areas of comfort.
CAIRO REVIEW: That brings us to Iran. The U.S. has had its own bilateral issues with this country for a long time. How do you see this unfolding now?
THOMAS SHANNON: I think the initial agreement that was done in Geneva was a vital step forward, first of all, in creating a level of confidence that the international community could engage with Iran around its nuclear program. And that the Iranians were prepared to engage, at least initially, in response to our very real concerns about the transparency and the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. We are in a longer term negotiation with an effort to resolve this issue. And the success of that is going to be determined by the extent to which the Iranians are prepared to begin to make their nuclear program more transparent and guarantee the international community that it is peaceful. We still have a lot of work to do.
CAIRO REVIEW: How do you assess their level of cooperation?
THOMAS SHANNON: I think we’re at a fairly tentative place right now. What I think is evident is that our broader sanctions policy has worked, that it has created a situation in which the Iranians realize that in order to be able to re-emerge economically, and to have the kinds of commercial and investment relationships they want in the world, and to be a more integral part of a global community, they need to address the very real concerns that we have about Iran’s nuclear program. The election of the Iranian president seemed to indicate that there was a political space inside Iran for these kinds of negotiations. Now Iran is very complicated. There are a variety of factors that affect the ability of the government to negotiate in good faith. And we are testing those in many ways through these talks. I think in terms of its negotiating capacity, Iran is in a very different place today than it was under its previous government. What we are attempting to determine through these talks is whether there has been a strategic shift. And that we don’t know yet.
CAIRO REVIEW: Can we turn back to Russia and the Ukraine crisis? How would you describe the impact on relations, and European security?
THOMAS SHANNON: It was a terrible act by the Russians, a terrible, terrible act: the annexation of Crimea, the dismembering of Ukraine. It is one that we can’t accept, independent of its de facto status. We spent so much time building international structures that are designed to address territorial disputes through peaceful negotiations, that to allow this to go unanswered is very damaging. And not just in Russia’s periphery, but elsewhere in the world where there are unresolved territorial disputes, or unresolved secessionist movements, or unresolved irredentist movements. From that point of view, we are going to continue to argue that Russia’s action is illegitimate and invalid, while we attempt to find a way to ensure that this crisis doesn’t spark a larger dispute in the region. The president and the secretary have been very clear about this. What we have been able to do so far has sent a clear message to Russia that in many ways the kind of relationship that we were both working toward bilaterally, but also the kind of relationship that Russia was working toward with Europe, have been fundamentally affected. And have to be viewed in a very different context now.
CAIRO REVIEW: What was Putin thinking?
THOMAS SHANNON: You have to ask him.
CAIRO REVIEW: How do you read it?
THOMAS SHANNON: My own view is that it was an overreach. It is very difficult to speculate. When you look to the long term, Russia’s strategic hand is not strong. This is a country that has many of the indictors going the wrong way; in terms of its population growth, in terms of social indicators, in terms of its inability to move beyond a commodity-based economy. And, [it] was seeking, through its European engagement, through its U.S. engagement, and through its broader international engagement, to build new kinds of trading relationships, new kinds of investment relationships, and attempting to engage in the areas of science and engineering, technology and math, to create Russia as a center of scientific innovation. All of this has been put at risk. So, from our point of view, it was a mistake of historic proportions.
CAIRO REVIEW: Can this be reversed? Or is the annexation a fact of history now?
THOMAS SHANNON: It is a fact of current history. What happens next is going to be up to the Russians. They could reverse it if they wanted to.
CAIRO REVIEW: Pretty hard to lose face like that. How do you see this affecting the ability or interest of Europeans to work with the United States on the range of other issues while Europe has this crisis on its doorstep?
THOMAS SHANNON: I think that as the president’s recent trip to Europe shows, and as Secretary Kerry’s constant engagement with our European partners has indicated, it reinforces the Atlantic relationship. It reinforces the Atlantic alliance. It creates a contemporary rationale for NATO that some had doubted. It shows clearly that there still are security concerns that we need to be alive to and be prepared to address.
CAIRO REVIEW: A hallmark of Obama’s foreign policy is multilateralism, working with partners. Yet the administration has experienced some bumps with the WikiLeaks and NSA revelations. What kind of damage has this done to America’s relations even with allies?
THOMAS SHANNON: Given the disparate nature of those events, we should address them separately. WikiLeaks was largely an effort to lay bare our diplomatic activity through publishing diplomatic cables that described our analysis and understanding and engagement. It was not nearly as pernicious or as damaging as [Edward] Snowden’s allegations. It is quite clear that Mr. Snowden and his handlers through the release of documents that Snowden had provided were intent on seriously damaging our intelligence collection capability, but on top of that were focused on damaging strategic relationships, both long term relationships but also emerging relationships. In that regard, the president attempted to respond in several ways. The first was through a larger review of our signals intelligence collection processes to ensure that we weren’t taking inordinate risks, or putting at risk key relationships through technological capabilities that might not necessarily meet or correspond to our immediate needs. And both through an independent presidential review commission and also through an interagency review process, he reached a point where on January 17 he was able to release a new presidential policy directive that laid out the parameters for signals intelligence collection. I think he found a way to balance our security requirements with the concerns that were raised by many of our partners about privacy issues. I think that was an important and positive step forward. As we engaged, it became increasingly apparent that, especially with our European partners, we have very close intelligence liaison relationships and very close security relationships, and we have established relationships where we work with them and share intelligence on a broad range of issues especially in the area of terrorism. So the equities involved were quite big. And those tended to temper the response and the reactions from many countries. But we have worked hard to address the privacy concerns of our partners.
What’s interesting, and in many ways what is even more important about this issue, is that the president asked his counselor, John Podesta, to begin a process of looking at the impact of big data on privacy. Over these past several months, Mr. Podesta has been putting together a report, working with the president’s council on scientific advisors, to identify where big data and privacy intersect. What we mean by that is the data collection and analysis capability that exists in the world today, while having huge positive potential also has very disturbing negative potential. The idea is to generate not just a larger dialogue in the United States but beyond about how governments deal with this in a way that is going to protect the fundamental aspects of privacy. Ultimately that is going to be a positive discussion that is going to come out of what were the very damaging allegations made by Mr. Snowden and his compatriots that will allow us to have a bigger conversation about the Internet and about information technology in the twenty-first century.
CAIRO REVIEW: Any other comments you would like to make?
THOMAS SHANNON: This is an exciting world we are living in. It is one in which the changes are so profound and so tectonic, and the reordering of global power structures is such that we are in a period of time that I refer to as “the long diplomacy,” as opposed to “the long war.” The success of our diplomacy over time is going to depend on our ability to build partnerships and alliances. And to be able to work with people who while they may share some of our interests and some of our values probably don’t share them all. It’s a different kind of paradigm.
CAIRO REVIEW: Secretary Kerry has made a lot out of the need to show the relevance of foreign policy to Americans. Is that working? Are the American people on board for this complicated world?
THOMAS SHANNON: That is a great question. The answer is that I don’t know. We won’t know for a while. As far as the American public is concerned, so much of our international engagement over these past fifteen years or so has really been around conflict. Starting with 9/11, then moving to Afghanistan, then Iraq, and then back to Afghanistan. And the trick is going to be whether or not we can convince the American people that international engagement is much more than conflict, more than warfare, more than a fight against terrorism, and more than security. That it’s about engagement in negotiations, and opening space for commerce and investment, and educational exchange and scientific and technological exchange. At a fundamental level Americans understand that. Our society is more globalized than it ever has been. All you have to do is walk into my apartment building in Washington, DC, and see all the Chinese graduate students, and you know that this is a different America, and that we are engaging in the world in a different way, and in a way that is very positive for us. But the president and secretary have a big challenge in front of them in convincing the American people that our future lies abroad.