MODERATOR: So this is a background briefing and [Senior State Department Official] is Senior State Department Official for purposes of the background briefing. And this is obviously about our trip on Monday that some of you are going on. And he’ll have some opening comments, and then we can go into Q&A.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Great. Thanks, [Moderator], and thank you all for coming. This is a trip I am particularly looking forward to. I know the Secretary has been. We’ve had a couple of false starts with the Secretary’s travel to Italy and we are very pleased that we are finally able to do that. The Secretary will be departing Monday night, the 30th, headed to Italy, of course, also visit the Holy See. And then on Friday, we’ll go on to a short stop in Montenegro, followed by a short stop in North Macedonia, and then on to Greece to Athens. He’ll return to Washington on Sunday the 6th.
So in Rome, just to kind of give you a run-through of the – well, let me step back a second and say that the overall goal of the trip, obviously, and the themes that we’re focused on from the department’s perspective is affirming and enduring the strength of our alliances and partnerships. That’s key there. And that includes emphasizing strong commercial and economic ties for the part of mutual prosperity and security, but also continuing some of the things we focused on here during UNGA and in other events over the past few months confirming our commitment to the advancement of religious freedom globally.
In that regard, when we get to Italy, the Secretary will meet with Italian President Mattarella, Sergio Mattarella, with Prime Minister Conte, and with Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who we saw just the other night here discussing the importance of transatlantic unity and celebrating a strong bilateral relationship – obviously, one of the U.S.’s closest partners, a founding NATO member, a host to U.S. forces, and you’re all familiar, particularly in this city, with a strong history of U.S.-Italy ties. They’ll focus on economic and security ties as well and strengthening our enduring partnership with Italy. There will be an opportunity for the Secretary to meet with business leaders, focusing on U.S.-Italy business and investment opportunities and the robustness of that.
The Secretary is also going to have a chance to visit his ancestral home in Abruzzo and meet some local leaders there, which was a really nice opportunity. And I think in this year of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Italy, depending how you’re counting, and the end of World War II, it’s an important opportunity to remember those ties too and the ties of so many Italian Americans.
Back in Rome, the Secretary is going to participate in a joint U.S.-Holy See symposium, which is called Pathways to Achieving Human Dignity: Partnerships with Faith-Based Organizations. That’s going to be on October the 2nd and take place in the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. This is an outgrowth of the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. You’ll recall we held that a few months back in Washington, in June specifically, hosted by the Secretary. It was the largest human rights-focused gathering that we’d had at the State Department, and this is a continuity of that.
It also gives you – gives the Secretary a chance at the Holy See to have a private audience with His Holiness Pope Francis, meet with the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin and Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Paul Gallagher.
And you may remember too that this is the 35th anniversary this year of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and the Holy See, something we also marked on the margins of the religious freedom – Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in June. And they’ll have a lot of chances to discuss some of the key themes and ways we work together to advance peace and freedom and development as well.
A little context on that regard. You know that the Trump administration has made religious freedom a priority in our foreign policy – some of our founding values, those shared values, of course, that we have in the transatlantic alliance. This week, as I mentioned earlier, President Trump was the first president to host an event on this specific topic at the UN General Assembly, and the State Department also had side events on China’s persecution of Uighur Muslims. That was cohosted, actually, by four other nations and that was attended by more than 30 nations. And so the Secretary’s address at the Pathways to Achieving Human Dignity event symposium will build on some of these efforts.
So once we have finished in Italy, on Friday we’ll travel to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, where the Secretary will have a chance to meet with senior government officials there – the president, prime minister, foreign minister. He is going to use the visit to highlight the importance of our deep and enduring partnership with NATO’s 29th ally, Montenegro. This is a year in – I believe it was July when Montenegro completed their formal accession into NATO, and so it underscores the importance of the NATO enlargement, the open door policy. And both in terms of their participation and contributions, obviously a small country, but NATO has – Montenegro has made a difference in geography, the importance of the Adriatic and the Med to the alliance, and it’s a great opportunity for the Secretary to stop in and say hi.
Similarly, from Podgorica we’ll travel on to North Macedonia, which is slated to become the 30th member of NATO as soon as the ratification process is completed by all the rest of the allies. And in fact, we’re going to fly into Ohrid, not the capital of Skopje. Ohrid is an extremely old city on the shores of the eponymous lake of that name, Lake Ohrid, Europe’s oldest and deepest lake, if I recall correctly, where he’ll meet senior government officials – the president, the prime minister, deputy prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister – and also have a chance to tour the 13th century church there, Perybleptos, or Holy Mother of God Monastery complex, on the banks of Lake Ohrid. They have really incredible and priceless Byzantine-era frescos as well as incredible icons, and a lot of those were restored recently and preserved with support from the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation through the U.S. Embassy in Skopje.
And later that day, then we will go from Ohrid to Athens. The Secretary will arrive Friday night, and Saturday he will meet with Prime Minister Mitsotakis, the relatively new prime minister of Greece. You may have seen him here at UNGA as well as a slew of members of his cabinet in the relatively new government there. Foreign Minister Dendias and Defense Minister Panagiotopoulos will be there.
We’ll obviously have lots of things to discuss with our ally Greece, but we are also sort of prepping the 2019 U.S.-Greece Strategic Dialogue, which will formally then take place on Monday, October the 7th, after the Secretary has departed. So he and the prime minister will be able to kind of set the stage for that Strategic Dialogue, which runs through a whole range of things that we work on together with Greece – obviously defense and security, Greece a major and important NATO ally – the Eastern Mediterranean, the Aegean, the Black Sea, all important areas in terms of our National Security Strategy.
But as important, they’ll look at research and business opportunities, obviously a lot of cultural and arts things, and the Secretary will deliver a speech in Greece on the bilateral relationship and frankly the rapid growth in economic ties between our two countries. I think those that look into it – Greece, which has gone through, as we know, a very difficult period, is really kind of a new Greece and there’s a lot going on there in terms of economic opportunity and growth.
So why don’t I stop there?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: If that’s a good intro, I can go into a little more on any of these stops or questions you have.
MODERATOR: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Paolo Mastrolilli with the Italian daily La Stampa newspaper.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Buongiorno.
QUESTION: Buongiorno. We met when you were in the —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Si, si, ricordo bene.
QUESTION: Can you elaborate on the bilateral issue that will be discussed with Italy in terms of, like, China bilateral initiative, Huawei, Libya, Iran, Venezuela? And can you do the same also in terms of the relationship (inaudible) just initially —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, sure. I’d be happy to just go into a little more detail. I mean, obviously, Italy is a key NATO ally, a very reliable partner, bilaterally as well as through the alliance, a leader and guarantor of security in the international community. Italy plays a very key role there, also hosting NATO’s – the command, NATO command in Naples, on the southern flank. Of course, they’ll discuss Italy’s presence in Libya and really around the world, Iraq, Kosovo, Lebanon, Afghanistan, areas where we work together militarily. Italy is the largest – or Italy’s largest export market outside of the EU is the United States. All you have to do is walk down 5th Avenue or Madison here – (laughter) – I’m sure [Moderator] has been to a couple of these stores – to know that —
MODERATOR: Who, me? (Laughter.)
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: — our two-way trade in goods and services amounted to almost 100 billion, I think $99 billion last year. So that underscores the importance of that. And similarly, we have a very robust direct foreign investment relationship. There’s Italian direct investment in the United States of almost $40 billion, which creates close to 80,000 U.S. jobs, according to the Department of Commerce statistics. U.S. direct investment in Italy is about the same and creates some 223,000 jobs for Italians. So this is an important bilateral economic and commercial relationship as well, and we’re always looking for ways to build on that. I know from probably some of the things we shared in Milan, there are a lot of opportunities to increase that. It’s something we’ve always felt was actually underutilized in terms of the bilateral relationship. And of course, just to reinforce the point that the Secretary himself personally illustrates, there are more than 20 million Americans who proudly claim Italian heritage. I believe the Secretary is the first Italian American Secretary of State, and his family is from the central region, Abruzzo, the mountains, and he’ll have a chance to get up there and see some of the roots.
On the Holy See side of things, I think it goes without saying that the Holy See is a very important diplomatic partner and, of course, they maintain diplomatic relations with 183 countries. I think it’s one of the highest in the world, and as I noted, we’re celebrating 35 years of formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Ambassador Gingrich has been very active on that. And so with 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide and millions and millions of non-Catholics who are attentive to the views and engagement of the Holy See, it’s something that the United States very much appreciates and values in terms of promoting the role of faith-based organizations. Through that we’re able to address a lot of our shared priorities – religious freedom, everything from combating human trafficking to humanitarian assistance – and the Holy See itself is one of the greatest humanitarian forces in the world in terms of a vast network.
I think people consider the Vatican’s humanitarian network to be second only to the International Committee of the Red Cross in terms of reach. And since the U.S. is the most generous provider of foreign aid in the world, the partnerships that we need to do that in terms of delivering the aid successfully and efficiently, it’s very useful to discuss and – with and work closely with the Holy See on that.
MODERATOR: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, [Senior State Department Official]. Can you talk a little bit about the Balkan stuff? I know he’s not going to Kosovo or anything like that, but is Matt Palmer going to be on this? And is he – is there any discussion about trying to get Kosovo back to the table with the Serbians? Is the —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Indeed, we’re not stopping in Kosovo or Serbia on this trip. The focus here is NATO allies number 29 and 30. And I’m glad you mentioned Matt Palmer, as you know, deputy assistant secretary and recently created the special representative – Secretary’s special representative for the Western Balkans. We’ve had – he’s not coming on this particular trip since we’re making these very brief stops. But Matt has been here with me in – anonymous official number one – here in New York during UNGA we’ve had a lot of meetings with individual Western Balkans leaders, presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, but also in groupings, the members of the Adriatic Charter, which is focused on the security, those who aspire to, many of them are now – including Montenegro and soon to be North Macedonia – members of NATO. But it goes beyond that; along with observers, both Kosovo and Serbia representatives attended that gathering, which was just a really good opportunity to discuss security in the region.
And through the appointment of Matt, the Secretary has signaled something which may be clear to many of you who have followed this, is that the U.S. remains very engaged and focused on the Western Balkans. They’re important strategically to our vision of Europe whole, free, at peace. We’ve made, frankly, a lot of progress if you think about the last 20 years, and both Montenegro and North Macedonia are examples of that. Macedonia’s – North Macedonia’s contributions to NATO have been longstanding, even as they’ve been candidates for membership. The Prespa agreement, which in Ohrid, obviously, we’ll have a chance to highlight what’s really an incredible step that demonstrated leadership and real courage on the part of leaders both in North Macedonia and in Greece, and a real addition to stability and prosperity, and of course allowed North Macedonia then to move forward on the membership track. Coincidentally, this is the 25th anniversary year of our formal diplomatic relations with North Macedonia after it emerged as an independent country from the breakup of Yugoslavia.
So I think we’ll focus both on the security side of things, but what NATO membership brings also because of security is opportunities to attract greater foreign investment, and that has been a priority for the governments both in Montenegro and North Macedonia in terms of attracting more FDI. I think in 2018, after the Prespa agreement and the movement on NATO, North Macedonia recorded a foreign direct investment inflow of $738 million, which was a record for them.
So a great chance to also look at people-to-people exchanges in an interesting part of the world. And of course, in both countries I think we’ll talk about Russian efforts to sow discord there. You’re familiar with the coup attempt in Montenegro a couple of years back, efforts to disrupt the Prespa process and the integration aspirations of people in North Macedonia and other countries in the region. So there’s really lots to talk about there.
MODERATOR: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Voice of America. I have one question for Kosovo, if I can go on that. Do you – since U.S. and EU are very engaged to see the solution of that issue, do you expect something to be resolved by the end of the year, or that’s going to have to wait till the elections in Serbia? And another matter is why is State Secretary not visiting Albania in this trip?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Because he’s visiting NATO members 29 and 30, the most recent to join the ally – to join the alliance. That’s kind of the focus here, is an opportunity between Italy and Greece to make those short stops, but I know the Secretary appreciates the opportunity to say hello and talk about the things that I outlined. I think it’s significant that he will travel from North Macedonia to Greece. In both of these Balkan countries, he’ll be able to underscore our support for resolution of issues, and that includes Serbia and Kosovo. I don’t want to get off on things outside the scope of this briefing, which is about the upcoming trip, but clearly we are engaged and want to see progress there.
I think many people saw the Prespa agreement which resolved something that, as you know well, for many was seen as something that could never be resolved. It showed that diplomacy can really make a difference and move on. North Macedonia and the progress they’ve made with their neighbors is really illustrative of the results of this diplomacy, and the U.S. has been very pleased to be engaged in part of that in the region for, as you know, many years.
I think Bulgaria deserves real credit. The treaty of friendship that North Macedonia and Bulgaria signed was an important step moving forward the Prespa process, and Ohrid, which is a center long before there were borders and the modern era of nation-states, also represents a important and very historic hub that also underscores the idea of religious freedom as well and the opportunity to celebrate religious freedom, but all of the different faiths that are practiced in the region and how clearly and illustratively they can live and work together. So flying from Ohrid to Athens, I think, will be a significant moment.
QUESTION: One more question about the timing of the visit, if I can.
QUESTION: Sorry, one more question about timing of the visits. I believe he’s the first State Secretary to visit Montenegro since its independence. Why now? And since we know that Special Representative Palmer also – when he was appointed, Montenegro was one of the countries that he first visited. Do you see a special role for Montenegro in resolving some of the issues —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think Montenegro is a good ally. We’re very pleased they were able to join the alliance. This year, they completed their formal accession as NATO’s 29th ally and member, and that’s a perfect opportunity, while flying from Rome, to make a stop, and the Secretary looks forward to that historic opportunity.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks. You mentioned very quickly that you’ll be discussing Russia while you’re in Montenegro and North Macedonia, but could you expand upon what the message will be about countering Russian malign influence? And given the Secretary’s focus on religious freedom, will he be talking about the weaponizing of the Orthodox Church?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think those subjects certainly come up. Those are issues of concern throughout the region and with both of those allies. We’ve seen the effects of Russian malign influence in those countries. And what we’ve said for so long is that it’s up to these sovereign and independent states and their people to make their decisions about the direction they want to go, their decision to pursue NATO membership. I think it’s been important for them, and we’re pleased to see that progress. I do think religious freedom and understanding the Orthodox Church and its role in the region, but also how it can be used and manipulated by some actors (inaudible) important point for us to look at. So we’ll have a chance to discuss all of the things that (inaudible) countries want to talk about.
MODERATOR: Okay. One more. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes. I’m Michail Ignatiou from Open TV Greece.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Hi.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) one clarification is when you are saying that – you talking about your strategic dialogue with Greece, you mean it’s a new thing or it’s a continuation from the old dialogue?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s something we do every year.
QUESTION: Very good. And —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And we’ll do that on the 7th.
QUESTION: Okay. And Mr. Secretary is going to sign the new military agreement with Greece in this trip?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think we’ll have to just sort of see exactly what we do on that. I mean, it’s – clearly, discussing our military cooperation is something we’ve really had extraordinary cooperation and – I’ve had meetings there in the last several months, and the work that our embassy’s done with the Greek counterparts has been really positive for both our countries and for the alliance. As I said, the Eastern Mediterranean is an area of strategic significance. We have seen a lot of activity in recent months and years, and our partnership with our ally Greece is fundamentally important to that.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Did I provide my 30 minutes?
MODERATOR: You did.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you.