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John Rood, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and Barbara Starr, CNN's Pentagon Correspondent, at the Aspen Security Forum on July 20, 2018.

In Aspen, Colorado in a rare opportunity amongst our country’s elite in national security and homeland security, the Undersecretary of Policy for the Department of Defense, John Rood shed light to the forum and public on the nation’s strategies. The discussion was moderated by Barbara Starr, CNN’s Pentagon Correspondent.

The Aspen Security Forum is held every summer by the Aspen Institute to have in-depth discussions with leaders and policymakers on the key homeland and national security issues of the time.

Below are some highlighted quotes of John Rood from the discussion.

Overall Strategy

“There’s a very clear characterization of the world, that a return of great power competition is upon us. That the Russian government and the Chinese government are competitors who seek in a revisionist way to change the international order in a way that favors them.”

“Then there’s an articulation in the document that while the fight against violent extremism is going to be with us for a long time, that international terrorism is not the greatest threat to the United States and is not something that can change our way of life in the same way that the great power competition that we’re engaged in can.”

“One to build a lethality of the military that the United States operates. Secondly, to work very closely with friends and allies to reinforce existing alliances and to build new partnerships. Then there’s the third line of effort to talk about reforming the Pentagon so that we can do that in a more affordable way.”


“China and Russia come to the top of the list. China is the greater long term strategic challenge facing the United States. But in many ways, Russia is the larger near-term threat because of the overwhelming lethality of its nuclear arsenal and also because of some the behavior that the Russian government has exhibited.”

“We’ve had serious concerns, as you know, about some of the activities Russia has undertaken in terms of invading Crimea, the illegal annexation of that area, that part of Ukraine. It’s activities that are threatening to our NATO allies, exercises, overt threats, and cyber activities.”

“Well, the arms control agenda’s been one that the United States and Russia have worked on for a number of years but one of the starting points for a fruitful conversation about that will be our concerns about Russia’s lack of compliance with a number of their arms control agreements. Like the INF treaty. Nearly five years ago, the United States government formally declared Russia to be in violation of that agreement.”

“We’re not going to show a lot of flexibility on agreements, other parties to agreements with the United States should live up to those agreements.”

“It’s a very normal thing I think for the President of the United States and the President of the Russian Federation to have exchanges. Over the years as I’ve worked in government, past presidents, President Obama met regularly with his Russian counterpart, President Bush met regularly with his Russian counterpart. I think the fact to have a meeting, after all this is a very important country in the world stage.”

“Well, as I mentioned, we’ve had significant concerns about the direction of Russia under President Putin and this attempt to revise the international rules based order in a way that is concerning to us. So, respect for the sovereignty of other nations, clearly a concern at NATO. Part of the reason why you saw the European deterrence initiative again this year in the President’s budget. President Trump requesting additional money to reassure the European allies of his commitment to their security. 6.5 billion dollars that the United States will now set aside for the European deterrence initiative, up about 1/3 from last year’s commitment.”

“The European deterrence initiative is aimed at deterring territorial aggression from any party to include Russia. Why are there legitimate concerns about this? Because Russia has violated the territorial integrity of other countries in the area, like the Ukraine.”

“But one of the areas that has concerned us is the large-scale exercises that Russia has done, in some cases with very little notice or transparency along NATO’s periphery. And so, there are a number of reasons to be concerned about the behavior, but what you saw I think in Brussels is substantial, real, actual commitments by the allies for things that they can do together in collective security at NATO to A) Reassure their publics about their ability to collaborate together, to respond, to make NATO fit for our times, fit for its purpose. Other things that were done: command structure adjustments, additional commitments by allies to do that. All part of being prepared to deal with contingencies to include any sort of adventurism on the part of the Russian Federation.”

North Korea

“We’re hopeful. And that is one of the things that we’ve had discussions with the North Korean representatives that have given us a feeling of optimism. And again, bringing this closure to the families, and meeting this solemn obligation to the people that have served is just critical, so we are going to go the extra mile to try to get that agreement, to continue that activity, and to bring closure to so many families. Again, over 5,300 that are still waiting for that closure all these years later.”

“Well in North Korea, of course we’ve had very good discussions of late to try to move this situation to a more productive area. One of the things from President Trump’s summit in Singapore with Chairman Kim Jung-un were his commitments on denuclearization, the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program is what we seek, and their ballistic missile program. So, I’m hopeful that we will continue to see progress there.”

“What gives me some hope this time around because, well, there is some familiarity in the North Korean positions that they have taken, to me, from those in the past. Kim Jung-un is a different leader than his father and is a different leader than his grandfather. His focus, for instance, if I’d been sitting here during Kim Jong-il’s rein, his father, we would have talked about North Korea having a military first policy. Today, Kim Jong-un’s policy is economy first. It gives you some hope and based on his behavior with President Trump and others, that the commitment for denuclearization, that we can achieve that. I am very conscious of our history with North Korea, and of course I retain a deep skepticism of their intentions, a deep skepticism of their activities, but there have been some hopeful steps. And as you mentioned, we have not seen another nuclear test in quite some time. We’ve not seen the missile tests that we were seeing with great regularity before. And we’ve seen other steps the North Korean government take. So for me, I have some optimism that this has the potential to be different, but I retain a healthy skepticism about are we going to ultimately be able to achieve our objectives.”

“Well, Singapore was not all that long ago. And if you look at the history of our previous negotiations with the North Koreans, I would not describe them as nimble dance partners who respond with great regularity. I don’t know that it’s out of family the behavior that we’re seeing in terms of the speed of response, or the ability of their negotiators to be agile, on their feet, at the table.”


“Iran remains a substantial concern of ours. As I mentioned, the national defense strategy talks about Iran as a major challenge for us that we face. Their behavior is very concerning as well.”

“Well, obviously we retain a longstanding concern about Iran’s nuclear program. Their ballistic missile program continues at pace, long range missiles. That is also of concern, not only to the United States, but to our allies in Europe, to our allies in the Gulf. Iran’s support for terrorism. And then this malign influence that Iran seeks to extend across the Middle East where you see, not only in places … If you start in Iran and extend in an arc across Iraq, Syria, in Lebanon, the supply of arms to the Houthis militants in Yemen, the destabilizing actions Iran is taking in that area, we have a number of reasons to be very concerned about their behavior.”

“Now in response, we’ve made it clear that we will meet our commitments to our allies. We’re working very well with partners in the region, whether it’s the Saudi government, or the UAE ambassador, for example, was here yesterday talking on this subject. That’s another key relationship for us. In Syria, we are trying to counter the Iranian influence there. Elsewhere, working closely with the Israeli government. So, we have lot of reasons to be very concerned. You’re right, their behavior does bear some watching.”

“You asked about the Iranian statement, threatening to take action to close shipping in the Gulf. One of our missions for the United States military is, if called upon, to continue to continue the free flow of commerce in that strategic waterway, whether that be vital oil shipments, whether that be other commercial goods, but to allow for the free and open navigation in the Gulf. Therefore, I’d really discourage the Iranian government from thinking about trying to interrupt that free flow of commerce. That would not be in their interest.”


“We’ve had a close and longstanding relationship with Israel, and the defense of Israel is one of our key concerns. We collaborate very closely, as you know, with the Israeli government across a range of activities. The United states military and Israeli military exercise together. Israel operates a lot of equipment that we collaborate on. Our defense industries are very linked. It’s an area that, that we have a lot of those things. And Israel has legitimate concerns about the encroachment on its territory in the attacks that it’s faced recently.”

“And so, the Israeli government, again, we back them. We work very closely with them. And these are not new concerns, but obviously in the highly complex melding pot that is the Middle East, sometimes I think.”

Click here to read the full transcript of the event.

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