Old Town Square in Prague, Czech Republic; citizens of Prague expressing disapproval of Russian aggression in Ukraine

Reaching out to our allies in Eastern Europe and Morocco; the U.S. will continue to exercise leadership overseas

From August 12 to August 19, I led a bipartisan congressional delegation of five members from both the Senate and the House on a trip to Morocco, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Estonia, and Iceland. Our delegation included members from a wide range of committees including those responsible for government spending, foreign relations, armed services, taxation, trade, and commerce.

Several recent trends are challenging the idea of a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace, a principle that has sustained the alliance between the United States and Europe since the end of the Cold War. Refugees and migrants fleeing instability in Syria and North Africa are straining Europe’s economy and contributing to a rise in populism and anti-immigrant sentiment. The British decision to leave the European Union earlier this summer reflected that anxiety while creating new questions about the future of economic integration around the world. The most concerning trend is Russia’s re-emergence as a significant military power, its territorial aggression, and the threat the Kremlin poses to the countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.

In light of these challenges, our trip examined the political, economic, and security dimensions of our country’s partnerships in Europe and North Africa, in an attempt to better understand how members of Congress can shape an effective foreign policy. In Morocco, we visited an Arab Muslim ally, partnering with us to fight extremism while also working to promote its own economic development and prevent its own citizens from becoming radicalized. In the Czech Republic, I heard concerns about the impact of immigrants and refugees, and a people who are pro-American but a bit complacent about Russian attempts to divide Europe. In Ukraine, I engaged with leaders and citizens of a country in the midst of two wars, one against Russian aggression and the other against corruption. In Estonia, I saw an innovative, small nation committed to deterring Russian aggression and eager for a closer partnership with the United States. In Iceland, I saw a strategic island, a longtime ally of the United States, and contributor to Arctic and European security.

At each stop, foreign leaders asked our delegation about Donald Trump’s rhetoric and his questioning of our commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), or in the case of Morocco, his willingness to work with Muslim allies to defeat the threat of radical terrorism. In the best bipartisan American foreign policy tradition, our delegation assured all our partners of the enduring nature of the U.S. commitment to NATO and to international peace and stability.On every leg of our trip, we benefitted greatly from the expertise of the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Officers. These diplomats, led by capable Ambassadors, do a phenomenal job of representing the United States to the rest of the world. Read on for a summary of my insights from a week representing the people of Delaware to our country’s foreign partners.

Kasbah of the Udayas in Morocco; Senator Coons speaking to the media with senior Moroccan Parliamentarians

Our visit to Rabat, the capital of Morocco, was designed to learn more about how a longtime U.S. partner in the Arab world is tackling a number of challenges. The first country to recognize the independence of the United States back in 1777, Morocco has not suffered from the same instability and revolution affecting much of North Africa and the Middle East. In response to the Arab Awakening of 2011, Morocco’s leader, King Mohammed VI, instituted a series of reforms designed to provide more authority to an elected parliament while also creating an independent judiciary.

We discussed these reforms with six members of the Moroccan parliament, including the President of the Upper House and the Vice President of the Lower House. We learned that Morocco hosts a training center for imams from North Africa, West Africa, and Europe to promote moderate Islam. At the same time, Morocco is promoting economic ties to provide its youth with more job opportunities to prevent young men in particular from traveling to Syria or Iraq to fight alongside the so-called Islamic State.

Economic ties were very much on the minds of officials from the American Chamber of Commerce, an association of representatives from American companies doing business in Morocco. Firms such as Citi, Ford Motor Company, Uber, Jacobs, UPS, Hilton, and others are attracted to Morocco because of its steady economic growth. The city of Casablanca, in particular, serves as a gateway to markets of opportunity in North and West Africa. I also spoke with a citrus grower who exports a variety of citrus and stone fruit from Morocco to the Port of Wilmington. I was excited to hear how these companies are bringing the American spirit of entrepreneurship to North Africa.

Senator Coons meeting with the head of the Moroccan defense ministry

In a meeting with the head of the Moroccan defense ministry, we thanked Morocco for its important contributions to counter terrorism and regional security in the Middle East and Africa. Morocco hosts an annual multilateral military exercise, the largest in Africa, and participates in over 50 joint exercises with the U.S. military each year. It also flies F-16 fighter aircraft purchased from the United States as part of the counter-ISIL coalition in Iraq and Syria, and it provides humanitarian support in the form of a military field hospital for Syrian refugees in Jordan. Morocco also contributes over 2,000 troops to United Nations peacekeeping operations throughout Africa while also training peacekeepers from a number of nearby nations in West Africa. In a time when we ask partner countries around the world to contribute to international security, Morocco spends four percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on national defense. The defense official with whom we met confirmed the importance of Morocco’s strategic partnership with the United States and expressed a desire to expand our partnership into new areas, especially cyber defense.

My visit to Morocco showed me that we have a reliable, strategic partner in North Africa. In a time when Donald Trump is suggesting we ban Muslims from entering the United States, we would be wise to note Morocco’s important contributions to regional security and countering terrorism and the value of working together with our Arab Muslim allies. Morocco is in a rough neighborhood, not far from Libya and susceptible to the forces that drive young men to fight alongside the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But with the right type of engagement focused on economic development and shared interest in regional stability, we can continue the continuous friendship our countries have enjoyed for two centuries.

U.S. Embassy in Prague; Prague Skyline; Astronomical Clock, Old Town Hall in Prague

Our next stop was Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, a country which has embraced democracy and developed its economy in an impressive fashion since the end of the Cold War. This central European country is a member of both NATO and the European Union. Of all the European countries we visited, in the Czech Republic our delegation sensed an anxiety about refugees and the effectiveness of European institutions. It was concerning to me that Czechs do not seem to view Russian meddling in their politics as a cause for alarm. While the business leaders with whom we met worry about the fall out of the British decision to exit the European Union, popular opinion in the Czech Republic is skeptical of the EU, and Czech government leaders are responding to that popular opinion.

Senator Coons meeting with the Czech Republic Deputy Prime Minister/Finance Minister Andrej Babis

One of those government officials is the Czech Deputy Prime Minister/Finance Minister Andrej Babis. Babis, an agricultural magnate with no previous political experience, recently formed his own political party focused on skepticism of European integration, ending corruption, and streamlining public sector bureaucracy. In our meeting with him, Babis also expressed populist, anti-immigrant sentiment. While our delegation and Babis did not agree on everything, we shared our willingness to work together to counter ISIL in the Middle East and North Africa and to improve the efficiency of government.

Russia has significantly increased their activity in disinformation campaigns through both broadcast and social media tools to influence public opinion in an attempt to divide the United States from Europe and to divide populations within the United States and Europe. Officials we met in Prague expressed varying degrees of alarm about Russian propaganda in Central Europe and the threat Russian aggression in Ukraine poses. We also learned of some of the innovative ways the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, media organizations designed to tell America’s story and provide a free and independent media where reporting does not normally exist respectively, are countering Russia’s meddling.

Like Morocco, the Czech Republic contributes to international peace and security. Although the size of its military is small, its forces guard the U.S. military presence at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and contribute to a variety of international missions led by NATO and the UN. Its military has helped to train and equip Kurdish, Iraqi, and Jordanian forces fighting ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

The Czech Republic has come a long way since its independence, and its population is susceptible to some of the same fears and concerns that we have here in the United States about maintaining economic growth and the trustworthiness of institutions of governance. U.S. diplomats and leaders should continue to remind Czech officials of the threat Russia has posed in the past and the ways in which they continue to attempt to undermine any country the Kremlin believes it can exploit in Europe. With the right amount of attention and engagement from the United States and a shared recognition of the danger of a divided Europe, the Czech Republic can continue its impressive economic growth and make additional commitments to NATO in the coming years.

In our delegation’s next destination Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, Russia’s negative influence was on full display. After gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine struggled with instability and corruption for many years. In 2014, the world was transfixed by mass protests of Ukrainians against pro-Russian President Victor Yanukovich in a square in downtown Ukraine known as Maidan, or Independence Square. In response to these protests, Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula, a part of Ukraine with Russian military bases and a Russian-speaking majority. More recently, Russia has been waging war in southeastern Ukraine in a region known as the Donbas in support of alleged separatists. Our delegation sought to learn more about the challenges facing the government and the people of Ukraine as they work both to win their fight against Russian-supported separatists in Eastern Ukraine, and to reform their political, military, economic, and judicial systems to end corruption.

Memorial for those who died in the Maidan Uprising; Senator Coons on tour of Maidan Square with Voice of America’s Ukrainian journalist Myroslava Gongadze; Maidan Square statue

Our meetings in Ukraine demonstrated Ukraine’s determination to use U.S. assistance to win both of these fights. We received a moving tour of Maidan Square from Myroslava Gongadze, a journalist with the Voice of America, whose husband was killed by one of the previous corrupt Ukrainian regimes. During her impassioned description of the events of two and a half years ago, we paid our respects at the memorials commemorating more than a hundred citizen activists who died.

Inspiring young civil society activists are urging the government to pursue reforms to provide greater transparency, an independent judiciary, and an end to the corruption in Ukraine. Our delegation heard a similar refrain from the American Chamber of Commerce in Kyiv. Officials from American companies like Pfizer, Arthur Daniels Midland, and Winner Automotive of Wilmington want a more predictable environment in which to operate. We heard loud and clear that only through reforms to combat corruption at all levels of government could Ukraine attract more foreign direct investment. Interestingly, business leaders urged us to press for greater U.S. support for Ukrainian civil society and independent media as both groups have been instrumental in holding corrupt officials accountable.

Kyiv’s Patrol Police Brigade Badge; Senator Coons with Ukraine’s Deputy Police Chief

But perhaps the most impressive thing we saw was the way in which the Patrol Police are rapidly implementing comprehensive reforms. Prior to the Maidan movement, Ukraine’s police did little to protect the public from crimes. Instead, they were more often an instrument of state repression. But over the past two and a half years, with modest U.S. investment in training and equipment, the police forces of Ukraine have been transformed. I was particularly encouraged to learn that Ukraine police officers wear body cameras during every encounter with the public. Average Ukrainian citizens now trust their community’s police officers at much higher rates, a trend which contributes to a stronger civil society and stronger democracy.

Senator Coons with Ukraine’s National Guard Commander; Ukraine’s National Guard Headquarters

The leaders of Ukraine’s National Guard were equally impressive. These troops, which have benefitted from training from U.S. troops in western Ukraine, have found themselves at the forefront in the fight against Russia’s illegal territorial aggression. They explained how hard they are working to train and restructure their forces to reach NATO’s high standards.

Senator Coons and delegation meet with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister

In an important meeting with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, we were pleased to hear how committed he was to furthering these necessary reforms in an effort to move Ukraine closer to the European Union and a market-based economic system. Before leaving Kyiv, our delegation spoke to the Ukrainian media to state clearly that despite rhetoric from Donald Trump, our bipartisan delegation represented members of the U.S. Congress who remain committed to assisting Ukraine’s reform-oriented government.

Our next destination was Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, a small Baltic nation of 1.3 million people bordering Russia and vulnerable to the Kremlin’s influence. Estonia achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and joined NATO and the European Union in 2004. Estonia has embraced its independence, and its officials reinforced to our delegation that Estonia is a model partner country. It adopted the Euro as its currency in 2011 and pursued free-market economic policies allowing its private sector to benefit, especially in the area of information technology and cybersecurity. The online video communication company Skype, for example, was founded in Estonia. Its success, along with sound public sector leadership which rooted out corruption from the Soviet era, ushered in a wave of electronic governance, efficiency, and economic growth.

The Estonian Flag; Tallinn’s Old Town City Center

Estonia is a strong and reliable NATO ally. It spends more than two percent of its GDP on defense, above the NATO guidelines. Of equal importance, its troops have fought alongside ours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Estonia’s Chief of Defense provided a thorough briefing of the Russian military doctrine and the threat facing the Baltic region. The Foreign Minister agreed with our delegation that the transatlantic alliance must maintain economic sanctions on Putin and his inner circle until Russian troops withdraw from eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Both officials impressed our delegation with their determination to do everything they can both diplomatically and militarily to keep European institutions united against Russia.

Senator Coons and delegation with Estonia’s President Toomas Hendrix Ilves; Senator Coons and delegation with Estonia’s Chief of Defense

Virtually all government services in Estonia are provided electronically. Everything from voting to buying a home to registering a business can all be done online in a matter of minutes. We discussed this efficient, innovative approach with Estonia’s President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the architect of Estonia’s e-government initiative. President Ilves was raised in New Jersey to Estonian parents who fled the Soviet invasion of Estonia. Ilves applied his background in both computer science and Radio Free Europe broadcasting to ascend within the Estonian government, serving as Ambassador to the United States and Foreign Minister before his current positon. Estonia is no stranger to Russian cross-border transgressions. Putin’s regime hacked Estonian computers in 2007 and, in September 2014, kidnapped and illegally detained an Estonian border security guard. Our delegation walked away from our time in Tallinn with a strong sense of how seriously Estonian officials view the Russian threat and how determined they are to deter further aggression.

The Icelandic Opera House; Hallgrímskirkja Church in Iceland; Sólfar (Sun Voyager) statue in Reykjavik

The final stop of our trip was Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. While Iceland may be famous for its hot springs, geysers, and active volcanoes, our governments share an important partnership. In June of this year, Iceland agreed to allow the U.S. military to re-open a vital airbase on the island to help us maintain awareness and intelligence of Russian military activity in the north Atlantic Ocean.

Delegation with U.S. Navy detachment sailors in Iceland

Upon landing, we met with the Keflavik air base commander from Iceland’s coast guard as well as a U.S. Navy detachment serving in an anti-submarine warfare mission at the airbase. While Iceland has a population of just 330,000 and no active military, its people value the long security partnership with the United States and NATO. The United States is investing in refurbishing and upgrading elements of the airbase, a critical transit hub in the center of the north Atlantic Ocean, that is one way Iceland contributes to the security of the Arctic and all of Europe.

Our delegation learned about the exciting work of deCODE Genetics, an American-owned Icelandic research and development firm using cutting-edge technology to analyze the human genome in order to develop cures. Iceland was settled by a small group of Norsemen and Celts in the 9th century A.D. and relatively few people have migrated there since. This makes Iceland among the most genetically homogeneous countries on earth, and a great place for isolating genes and learning more about the genetic origins of diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia to heart disease and obesity. Our delegation was fascinated by the briefing as we discussed the public policy implication of this research.

Senator Coons meeting with Iceland’s Prime Minister; Althingi, Iceland’s Parliament

Iceland’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister shared Iceland’s top security and economic priorities. Both officials explained how Iceland successfully recovered from a steep economic recession in 2009 while thanking us for our strong and enduring security ties, especially given Putin’s actions in Eastern Europe. Parliamentarians from the Althingi, the world’s oldest legislative body, which was first established in 930, asked about U.S. commitment to NATO and international trade, especially in light of the rhetoric surrounding our presidential campaign.

As stated above, in each destination, we heard these same anxieties about statements of Trump, especially with regard to his lax attitude toward Russia’s role in undermining international order. To be clear, Russia poses a direct threat to Ukraine and Estonia, and the Kremlin is undermining the stability of the Czech Republic and Iceland. Russia’s recent actions make clear that it does not share our worldview when it comes to the future of Europe and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Russia seeks to divide the United States from Europe, and it seeks to sow division within the European Union and NATO. Over the past decade, it has steadily rebuilt and modernized its military to wage a new form of multi-dimensional hybrid warfare using all levers of state power especially in cyberspace, communications and covert warfare. It is testing the resolve of the United States and the transatlantic alliance. In the absence of American engagement, internal concerns about refugees, immigration, economic ties to Russia and national concerns will allow Russia to successfully undermine NATO and the European Union, but if the United States exercises leadership, our European partners will join us in deterring Russia.

Senator Nelson, Senator Coons, Representative Meehan, Senator Peters and Representative Dent in Estonia

I returned from this trip with a renewed sense of conviction of the importance of standing firm in the face of Russia’s attempts to undermine the international order that the United States and its partners have built since the end of the Second World War. NATO has been the bedrock of transatlantic security for 70 years, and given Russia’s recent behavior, the alliance is more relevant now than perhaps ever before.