December 10, 2022

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Secretary Antony J. Blinken and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at the Munich Security Conference

62 min read

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Munich, Germany

Hotel Bayerischer Hof

MR HEUSGEN: (In progress) Antonio, you asked if I was to invite you again next year.  Yes, you are invited, and you have a standing invitation.  This, of course, has to do with the fact that not only Wolfgang spent his first time of his career in New York on the 31st floor; I spent the last four years while I’ve – in my career as Germany’s ambassador to the United Nations, and it was really a great pleasure to work with you under very difficult circumstances.

When I say that you have a standing invitation, of course it has to do with you personally, but it has to do with the United Nations because, there is no more important international organization, global organization, than the United States – the United Nations.  (Laughter.)  There is no way –we come to the United States in a second.   (Laughter.)  There is no way that we can be able to resolve the most important global challenges without the United Nations.

You talked about climate change.  There is no way that we can do this individually.  We need the UN.  When you talk about biodiversity, we can only do this together.  When we talk – we saw this on the health issue.  There is no way individual countries can resolve that, so we have to work together.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the first panel that I moderate, and for me it is kind of symbolic to have it, a panel with the foreign ministers of Germany and the foreign minister, Secretary of State of the United States.  When we go back to the foundation of the Munich Security Conference, when we go back to the first chairman of the Munich Security Conference, it was Ewald von Kleist.  Ewald von Kleist created this, and the first meetings, the first years were exclusively German-American, transatlantic meetings.  And for me it’s kind of symbolic to go back to the roots and welcome today on this stage the foreign minister of Germany and the Secretary of State of the United States.  Please extend a warm welcome to the two personnel.  (Applause.)

We will proceed the following way.  First, the German foreign minister will give her speech.  She will give her speech in German, so please get ready to take your headphones.  And then afterwards, we’ll have a panel debate in English on this stage.

While you are getting your headphones ready, it is my pleasure to introduce Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.  It is – after we had in Germany a first female chancellor, it is now very special and I’m very happy to introduce to you the first German female foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock.  You have the floor and thank you for being with us.  (Applause.)

FOREIGN MINISTER BAERBOCK:  (Via interpreter)  Ambassador Heusgen, Mr. Ischinger, Secretary General, Tony Blinken, ladies and gentlemen, I’m very happy, able – I’m very happy to be able to talk to you, to kick off the panel under the motto of “Unlearning Helplessness:  Meeting Global Challenges.”  Just a few days ago, I was right there at Lebedynske at the line of contact in the eastern part of the Ukraine – I was standing there.  Right next to me there was a schoolyard, and a destroyed house in my back, and every single moment I was thinking of my children who actually would go to school right now – in the morning, very hectically – and I was watching the children who were not able to do that here.  They were not able to go to their school, just like that.

Quite on the contrary, they had to face a huge concern because violence is omnipresent there.  And how real this kind of concern is becomes very clear when we hear that yesterday there have been hundreds of infringements of the ceasefire.  So in such a situation at such a place, you wouldn’t even think of a peaceful everyday life for your children, and this shows what really is at stake when we’re talking about Minsk.  It’s not only a negotiation format; Minsk is not a technical notion either.  We’re talking about human security.  We’re talking about safety, about whether or not people, families, children can live their lives safely and grow up safely in the middle of Europe.

Today we have to be very clear about that.  There’s a new war impending right in the middle of Europe.  Russia issues an absolutely inacceptable threat with their troops buildup vis-à-vis Ukraine, but also vis-à-vis all of us and our peace architecture in Europe.  Therefore, this crisis is therefore no Ukraine crisis.  We have to be very careful about our framing.  It’s a Russia crisis. (Applause.)  We therefore urgently appeal to Russia to draw down their troops immediately.

I mean, we’ve seen the first signals time and again, and we’ve this happening in the past few weeks.  First signals were a glimmer of hope, but now we need to see some action because the Russian threat continues to be a real one.  But our joint response is just as real.  If there were a Russian attack on Ukraine, then this would have massive consequences for Russia financially, politically, and economically.

And we have yet another message to Moscow that is just as clear.  We don’t want to have that.  We don’t want to have to draw these consequences.  We want to have a serious dialogue and security and peace together in Europe.  That is in the interest of all of us.  And yes, we also want to minimize the risk of escalation in Europe.  I mean, what else would we want?  Yes, we also want to create reliability, and that is why exactly we have worked out substantial proposals in the last few weeks, as NATO states.  They are on the table at Moscow, and every single time, every single minute, we want to talk about these now.

But what we do not want to see and what we cannot do is to challenge our architecture of security that we’ve built up together.  Yesterday’s response letter from the Russian side unfortunately, however, very much sounds like that.  President Putin, Sergey Lavrov, in your response letter, you underline that nonalignment also includes the principle that security must not be at the expense of others.  Yes, that is what we have agreed to together.  We together have agreed to this being a joint security that must not be at the expense of others, and this is what we expressly are committed to.  But that is the very reason why we have to talk about the troops buildup at the border in the eastern part of Ukraine, which of course, is at the expense of security in Ukraine.  More than 30,000 troops at the border – I mean, what else could this be if not a threat?

Those who want to live in security and safety together do not threat each other.  (Applause.)  If you want to live in security and safety, then you go to the negotiation table and talk to each other.  Sure, and you have to be very honest here.  Tony Blinken and I and many other foreign ministers, also ministers of defense, diplomats here in this room, we are asked time and again – I mean, it’s been going on for like one week – how long is this going to take?  It might be taking weeks, months.  Negotiations usually are a marathon.  There are setbacks, misunderstandings.  There might even some foul play in there, but if you’re afraid of starting this race and this one, then you don’t start working and you’ve lost out from the very beginning.

Helsinki or Georgia.  This is how Timothy Garton Ash, a historian, has described our choice.  That is the choice we as Europeans are faced with, the choice between a system of joint responsibility for security and peace that is based on the Helsinki Founding Act and the Paris Charter that we all have signed, or a system of power rivalry and spheres of influence, for which the Yalta Conference of 1945 was standing.  And for me, and I believe for every single one in this room, this is the key question because what is at issue for us Europeans and the international community, that is not just a question how we are going to resolve the current crisis, it is the question of how we’re going to stand up for our rules-based order in the future, an order that is based on the charter of the United Nations, on the principles of self-determination, the respect of freedom and human rights, and the principle of international cooperation.  That was especially described by the UN secretary general so vividly.

Does this principle still work – and this is the question that will be dealt with in this conference – or are we living in an age of collective helplessness, the resignation and helplessness, as is the motto of this panel?  Tony Blinken, the two of us are having numerous talks these days, but what makes me optimistic in these difficult times is the knowledge of the strength of our transatlantic union and the solidity of our alliances and the strength of our liberal democracies.  That is why my answer, my response, is very clear when I’m being asked where we are right now, whether we’re helpless or not.  We are not helpless collectively.  Quite on the contrary, we draw our strength from our action, from our acting together.  We are the ones to decide whether or not we’re helpless.

As far as I’m concerned, three elements are key: determination, solidarity, and reliability.  This applies to the Russia crisis, but also beyond.  We are determined with a view to the actions and measures that we’re preparing in the event of Russia acting against Ukraine.  These sanctions are – or would be unprecedented and have been coordinated with all our partners and have been prepared with them.  We in Germany are ready to pay a high price for that in economic terms. That is why all options are on the table – also Nord Stream 2.  (Applause.)

We show solidarity because we support and are committed to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, and I’m being very clear here.  Especially in situations of pressure like these, solidarity means to send out a clear message because the route that a country would like to embark on is – can only be determined by the country itself and by the people living there.  We are not going to negotiate over the head of Ukraine.  (Applause.)  Solidarity means that we take the concerns of our neighbors in Central and Eastern European seriously.  That is why we’re strengthening our NATO commitment together.

Solidarity also means, however – and that’s very important to me because foreign policy is not just some kind of policy between politicians, not just traveling forwards and backwards between the capitals of countries.  Foreign policy is about the people, our people.  And that is why solidarity means, in the current situation, not just showing solidarity with Kyiv but also with the people in Ukraine, and especially with the people that live close to the line of contact.  And here, OSCE is decisive because they’re observers are our eyes and ears there.  We have to ensure together that they can effectively do their job, especially now, where violence along the line of contact has dramatically increased over the past 48 hours.

Now, this is one of the most dangerous moments, where provocation and disinformation might turn into escalation.  I am being very clear here.  This is a game that we’re not going to play.  Quite on the contrary.  With all our efforts we work on finding constructive solutions from the – of the crisis, in the Normandy Format, in the EU, and in NATO.  Every step in the direction of peace is laborious.  We’re fighting for every single millimeter, but every millimeter is better than no movement at all.

And this brings me to my third point: reliability in foreign policy that is based on clear values.  What is at stake for the people in Ukraine is their right of freedom, their right to determine their own future.  And for all of us, what is at stake is nothing less than peace in Europe and the question whether or not we’re going to defend our rules-based order, even if it comes through the crunch.  We live in world in which this rules-based order is not just coming under pressure in Eastern Europe.  We’re faced with growing geopolitical tensions, with a competition between authoritarian forces and liberal democracies.  We see and realize that if we withdraw from this competition as liberal democracies, then others are going to fill these gaps.  We can see that with private groups of mercenaries or with a view of the large infrastructural project in Africa.

But we’ve also been seeing that in Europe, in the EU, when we left a gap in terms of solidarity when it was about investing in power grids, motorways, or digital infrastructure.  And we even saw that even more strongly at the beginning of this pandemic when it was about the distribution of vaccines.  If others interfere, then this will not happen for altruistic motives, but this will be based on true geostrategic calculation.

That is why, as far as I’m concerned, we as liberal democracies have to be a part of this competition between liberal forces and authoritarian forces.  We have to clearly walk the talk and show what we stand for.  The joint recovery after the pandemic, what has been summarized by the U.S. President Biden and also the United Nations under this wonderful label of Build Back Better – what has been defined there also spells out a huge opportunity for all of us, for the international – for international cooperation to really do it right when exiting from this crisis: to invest in a solution for the Ukraine crisis, to invest together in infrastructure, but also to invest together in finding a way out of this pandemic.

And that is why the German G7 presidency that we’re holding this year also will focus on this motto.  We’re going to show what our values are.  We show that international cooperation is stronger than national solo efforts.  And we show that an order on the basis of international law, of a fair coexistence and togetherness, of democracy and human rights will bring more than shutting borders down and then bringing in the borders internationally.

And this also includes women’s rights, and me being the first female foreign minister after 150 years, this also means that women’s rights have to be brought in here, because women’s rights are the yardstick for the condition of all democracies.  We’re seeing that worldwide, and I’m saying that as a German, as a European woman.  We’re not just seeing that in other countries.  We’ve also seen that in our country during the pandemic.  I mean, conjuring up the image of the strongman very often is not the most successful route, and we’re seeing worldwide that conjuring up the strongman actually goes hand-in-hand with the increase of authoritarian forces and a reduction of democratic rights.

And this is something, one insight that I brought back home when I was at the line of contact, because the mother said only if women are safe, everyone will be safe.  And that is our task and that is why I’m convinced that our global challenges, like the climate crisis, fighting the pandemic, will not be manageable for a single country alone.  We can only resolve this crisis together with a clear compass of values.  We have to be aware of that.  We are right in the middle of a difficult crisis, especially here in Europe, being transatlantic parties.  After this crisis, the world will be a different one and it’s now up to us.  It’s in our hands.  This is the hour to stand up for peace and rights here in Europe.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

MR HEUSGEN:  Thank you.  Thank you very much, Minister, for this very impressive speech, and let me start where you finished, where you talked about the role of women.  We at the Munich Security Conference this year have the highest number of women on our panels ever.  We are at 45 percent, and I pledge to you that next year we arrive at 50 percent.  (Applause.)

Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for being here.  I know you are extremely busy.  Let me – allow me to start with a compliment.  I have been following U.S. administrations for many, many years.  I have not seen an example like this one where the U.S. administration has reached out, has reached out in coordinating its position with its European allies in the EU, with NATO, with allies beyond this.  And I found this very, very impressive.

In talking about Ukraine, I was, day before yesterday, in a conference with the former prime minister of Ukraine, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who said what we are witnessing here is the best, the most successful peacekeeping operation, and that is to be together.

Now my question to you is:  First, do you think the minister talked about all the global challenges that we have, that this scheme, which, of course, is a lot of work – the President is involved, you involved, the defense ministers coordinating – could that be an example for the future, that we cope with all the challenges that the minister also mentioned in the same way, in this way of, as President Bush Jr. said it, in partnership and leadership, number one?

And number two:  Where do you think we stand with Ukraine?  I think this is what people – everybody want to know.  Minister talked about what we hear at the contact line.  There were days where there was no incident at all.  All of a sudden, we see this increase.  What do you see?  I recall 2014.  It was the end of the Olympics, and a few days or weeks later we saw these little green men entering into invading Ukraine.  Where, Mr. Secretary, do you think we stand right now?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, first, let me just start by saying what an absolute pleasure it is to be here, to be with all of you, especially to be with my friend and colleague Annalena.  And also, Christoph, Wolfgang, this must be the equivalent of an Olympic relay team – to go from Wolfgang to Christoph, doesn’t get any better than that.  So it’s wonderful to be with you.

To start with the first part, I really start where Annalena left off, because we have exactly the same perspective, and it’s the perspective that President Biden brings to everything we’re doing and that we’ve tried to do in our first year.  It’s a very simple conviction.  It’s the conviction that there is not a single challenge of consequence that’s actually affecting the lives of our people that we can effectively deal with alone.  Even for the United States, with the power that we have, the resources that we have, we have to be doing it in partnership.  And it’s an obvious proposition to many, but it’s no less important for being obvious.

When it comes to climate, even if we did everything right in the United States, we’re 15 percent of global emissions.  So by definition, we have to find a way to deal with the other 85 percent.  That requires collaboration, working with others, playing our part.

On COVID, we all know the truism: that no one is safe until everyone’s safe.  Omicron has reminded us of that if we need a reminding.  And so we have to find ways to do this together.  We were just a few days ago together on a video conference with some of our colleagues because I think we both feel at this point that we have to do more to mobilize coordinated, collective action to really finally get ahead of COVID and to get where we need to be at the end of the year, which is 70 percent of the world vaccinated.

On emerging technologies that are shaping everyone’s life, again, even if we did everything just right somehow in the United States, by definition these technologies surpass borders.  We have to find ways to set rules, norms, and standards together.  So that is our fundamental proposition and it’s exactly why, Christoph, we have invested so much of our own effort in the first year that we’ve been in office in reinvigorating, revitalizing our alliances, our partnerships, investing the time, the effort.  Because without that, we won’t succeed.  And I’ve been so grateful because when it comes to the partnership here, Germany is our partner of first resort on everything.  We have – there’s not an issue where we have not been working closely together, and it – it’s beyond words; it’s truly invaluable.

On Ukraine.  I had a chance to speak to this a little bit yesterday at the United Nations, at the Security Council, before coming here.  And I – even as we are doing everything we possibly can to make clear that there’s a diplomatic path, that this has to be resolved, the differences have to be resolved through dialogue, through diplomacy, we are deeply concerned that that is not the path that Russia has embarked on, and that everything that we’re seeing – including what you’ve described in the last 24, 48 hours – is part of a scenario that is already in play of creating false provocations, then having to respond to those provocations, and then ultimately committing new aggression against Ukraine.

I think it’s very important for us to shine a light on what we see.  Perhaps that will move Russia to a different path.  We remain fully prepared – both of us, with our colleagues – to engage on the diplomacy, but we have to be, I think, informed by history.  You referenced 2014; one could reference 2008 as well and Georgia.  And we have to be informed by the facts, and the facts are that despite what Russia has said in recent days about pulling back forces from the border, that has not happened.  On the contrary, we see additional forces going to the border, including leading-edge forces that would be part of any aggression.

So we have to be informed by that, we have to be extremely vigilant, and I’ll finish with this:  The single greatest source of strength that we have in dealing with this issue, in dealing with this challenge, is the solidarity that Annalena talked about.  I think President Putin’s been a little bit surprised at that solidarity, at the way that NATO has come together, the European Union has come together.  We’ve come together individually as partners; we’ve come together institutionally.  As long as we maintain that solidarity, we will either way – whichever path President Putin chooses – we will be ready to respond.

MR HEUSGEN:  Thank you.  Thank you very much.  This is a podium, and we have so many people around here who want to contribute, ask questions, so I invite you to do that.  You can either raise your hand or go also by digital notice.

Before I go to the – I see a question there – can I ask Minister a – or can I ask you a question which is a bit a difficult one, but it’s one which we have been debating a bit in the public these last weeks and days?  And this is the question of delivery of weapons to Ukraine.  You mentioned the human dimension, from what you said.  President Steinmeier four month ago went to Kyiv, to Babin Yar where, in the name of Germany, 80 years ago, within two days, 33,000 Jewish Ukrainians were massacred by Germany.  And of course, we say we never want to put arms against Russia because of our history, et cetera, but when you see that Russia is attacking Ukraine, a country that has really severely been hit over history – again, it’s fighting for existence – we sent MILAN missiles to the Kurds in Erbil in the area.  Why can’t we also send defensive weapons to Ukraine?

FOREIGN MINISTER BAERBOCK:  Because I think you always have to have in mind when you take a decision that either way, if you say yes or no, it has consequences.  And if you balance the consequences, we believe that at this moment it is not the moment to change our course by 180 percent degrees.  Because we are not all the same, even though we are standing side by side, we have different roles and we have different history.  And when I was in Ukraine, I said we have a historic responsibility, which I didn’t mean only with regard to Russia – definitely we were mentioning it also to Ukraine.  But because out of our history, we have a different responsibility for securing international peace than others.  If we are looking at Poland, if we are looking at France, they have been attacked by us like the Soviet Union countries, and therefore our responsibility after the Second World War was that never again from Germany there will be war, and never again there will be genocide.

You know the famous formula from one of my former colleagues as a foreign minister, and that’s why I’m making this curve here to show that we are thinking a lot about this.  But that’s why we have a very restrictive arms control legislation, because of our history.  We have this legislation that we are saying we are not selling weapons to everybody in the worlod, but only to our partners, NATO partners, and European Union partners, and that we have also clause where the weapons go afterwards.  And if we would change this now – also if we are talking about this famous Haubitzen, I had to learn, actually, what 30-year-old Haubitzen actually can do or what they cannot do anymore – but anyhow, if he changes course, we have to argue it.

And I think at this moment where I’m saying that we are doing everything for dialogue, where I as a German foreign minister, together with my chancellor, is doing everything, that we are getting on the table of the Normandy Format – it’s France, it’s Germany, it’s Ukraine, and it’s Russia.  This is a moment where I do everything for dialogue, but others, with the others’ role they are having, and this is our strength, that we are standing like all together, but using our different roles of support with regard to our different histories.

So the U.S. is having a different lesson with regard to arms export.  But I’m, for example, giving most financial aid – we are the biggest donor in Ukraine to stabilize the economy.  And if we are putting all this together, this is our strength at the moment, and that’s why I truly believe that this course is right, united in diversity.  It’s all a great motto of the European Union, and this is what we are showing at the moment, also in solidarity with Ukraine.  (Applause.)

MR HEUSGEN:  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Can I add – can I just add one thing, (inaudible) to this?

MR HEUSGEN:  Yes.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Because Annalena is exactly right.  We have been not only acting in a coordinated way.  We’ve been acting in a complementary way, bringing different things to the table that all add up to the solidarity that has been very effective.

And I want to add one other element.  Germany, Annalena have been speaking with tremendous moral clarity when it comes to Ukraine.  That is vitally important, too.  In fact, you can’t really place a value on that.  It’s essential to what we’re doing.  (Applause.)

MR HEUSGEN:  Thank you.  Thank you very much.  It’s wonderful to this transatlantic unity; this is what we need, this state.  Yes, please, if you – not everybody knows you, if you would be so kind to introduce yourself, and then we go back there.

QUESTION:  Sure – you’re going to hold it?  Okay, thank you.  Tobias Ellwood, member of Parliament from the United Kingdom and chair of the defense committee.  Thank you very much indeed.  I’ve just returned from Ukraine and there’s certainly concern about the immediate threat.  Could I ask whether it is we are hiding behind this rule that simply because a member – Ukraine is not a member of NATO, that there’s a limit as to what we should do?  In Ukraine, they would see Ukrainian security as European security, and I think I would agree with that.

And could I add, is there not a bigger picture that we now need to wake up to, that the reason why we’re seeing Russia’s adventurism is because of a new alliance, a dangerous alliance that’s forming between Russia and China – and that’s actually leading to Russia’s increased adventurism, boldness, indeed even welcoming sanctions knowing that Putin can persuade his own people maybe the future of Russia is not pointing to the West as it has been traditionally, but to move to the East with China, which would I think be the advent, a turning point geopolitically of a very dangerous era?  Thank you.

FOREIGN MINISTER BAERBOCK:  Well, I totally agree what you have been saying, sir, that it is dangerous, if we can see the alliance between those two countries.  But what Tony was saying beforehand, I mean, there’s also not only an alliance but there’s a strength between EU members.  And as you know from the past, it’s not always easy in the European Union to agree on different topics like all together by unanimity.  But at this moment, we are doing this by 27 states.  And this is also the difference then to 2014.  If we remember to 2014, when Crimea was invaded, when the separatists took over in eastern Ukraine – I mean, there wasn’t this solidarity.  And this is new at the moment.

So I think we should not always look that others are bonding, but also how big our strength, that we are bonding also with regard to NATO.  We are on the same page.  We have written the same letter all together, and that is also why we get the request, “Well, we want individual letters.”  No.  This is our common transatlantic answer.

And with regard to the economic sanctions, yes, I mean, we all know the figures.  We also know also with regard to financial flows.  However, I mean, if you have this scenario, being totally cut off by economic exchange between Russia and Germany, and Russia and the EU, I mean, this is not nothing.  And I would also underline, because we are always talking about Russia, but it’s the Russian Government.  Seventy percent of the Russian people – and this is also different than in 2014 – their biggest fear is war, war with Ukraine.  And this is also why we are saying here’s our hand to all the citizens the Russia, here’s our hand to all the political prisoners in Russia, here’s our hand to memorial and all the others in Russia, because we want to live together in peace, and this is what we have to underline with a clear message on sanctions, but also with a clear message on dialogue.  (Applause.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I can only add that I’m violent agreement with my friend and colleague.  Look, Russia and China together are right now less than 20 percent of world GDP.  The United States, Europe together 45 percent of GDP.  When we bring in some of our democratic partners from Asia, Japan, Korea, Australia, others, we’re well over 50 percent of world GDP.  That is a very powerful weight when it’s acting in unison, and increasingly, we are.

The convergence around a determination not to, in the case of China, hold it back, not to be opposed to Russia for the sake of opposing Russia, but to uphold something that brings us all together, which is this liberal international order – that increasingly is bringing us together.  And when we’re acting in unison, I’ll take our side anytime.

MR HEUSGEN:  Did I see François Heisbourg?  Please, go ahead.  Back there, Francois, and then it’s you afterwards.

QUESTION:  I’d be delighted to be François Heisbourg, but it’s Timothy Garton Ash, Oxford University and an English European.  To Foreign Minister Baerbock, precisely if we want consistently to pursue Helsinki against Yalta in changed circumstances, do we need a new German and European ostpolitik, and if yes, what would its two or three key features be?

And to Secretary Blinken, how do we preserve that Western unity and solidarity if Putin doesn’t do the invasion, doesn’t do even, to coin a phrase – how shall I put it – a small incursion, not a single Russian soldier crosses the frontiers but massive hybrid military technical means are applied, cyber attacks, recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk statelets?  How do we preserve Western unity in that event?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I think that what we’ve done over the last year is build a very solid foundation and strong foundation when it comes to Western unity across a whole range of challenges that we’re facing.  And we’ve rediscovered habits of cooperation, of coordination, and as I’m seeing it, at least, there is increasing convergence on most of the central issues of our time.  I am convinced that irrespective of what Russia does with regard to Ukraine in the weeks ahead, whether it is a full-on invasion, whether it’s something shorter of that, that we will retain that solidarity.

But it’s – it doesn’t happen by itself.  It’s the product of constant, day in, day out, roll-up-your-sleeves engagement that we have been engaged in.  And that will continue irrespective of what happens over the next week.  So it takes work, it takes effort, but I really think the last months in particular have concentrated minds in a way they have perhaps not been concentrated in recent years.  I don’t think we’re going to lose that concentration in the weeks or months ahead.

FOREIGN MINISTER BAERBOCK:  Thank you for the quote.  My answer is yes and no, not because it’s a politicking answer, yes and no, but because it has two parts depending on what you’re looking at.  I would say no with regard to the treaties because we have the treaties for living together in peace and in security in Europe and everybody has signed it.  But I say yes with regard to – if you’re referring that we just take the answers from 1970 and putting them in the year 2022, because in all these years, things have changed and the world have changed.  And when we talked about ostpolitik those days, I mean, we meant was ost, East, also Poland, Romania, and all the other eastern countries which are now joined, thanks God, in the European Union.  And that’s why our answer from 1970 cannot be the same answer in 2022.

And this is why we have also made clear – and I think this is also important for foreign policy – always reflecting what you are doing.  And I think this is also the strength of the answers from NATO and also from us as Europeans that we are also reflecting what have we done in the past.  Was there something where we should be critical by ourselves, saying: did we do enough on transparency?  Did we do enough on arms control?  Did we do enough when we were talking about placing missiles in the region?  And reflecting those things I think is actually what we should do when we are talking together in the NATO-Russian Council, and this is our invitation to Russia on the treaties, and there is no change from the past decades on the treaties of the security in Europe, speaking how we can ensure a peaceful world in the year 2022 for all our citizens.

MR HEUSGEN:  Thank you.  Thank you very much.  Now, before I get the names wrong again, can you introduce yourself, please?  (Laughter.)

QUESTION:  Abdul Momen, foreign minister of Bangladesh.  We are so pleased when Biden administration joined the climate dialogue, and we are thankful to Secretary Blinken and also the Special Envoy John Kerry for making it possible for Biden administration to join the climate discourse.  We are very pleased because we are hoping that we can save this planet.  And with the U.S. on our side, we were really delighted.

Now, my fear is this current Ukraine problem – will it take away, will it delay the process of climate change?  Will it delay – I mean derail the funding that we are expecting from the development partners?  Will there be a fear of violence and war and that will start a new wave of defense expenditure, which will take away money – away from the climate issue, creating more insecurity for the global community?  What is your take on it?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We see the challenge of climate change as the existential challenge of our time.  And if you see it that way, you’re going to make sure that you’re doing your part and doing everything necessary to meet the challenge, irrespective of what else is going on and what your other commitments are.

Beyond rejoining Paris, with the leadership of John Kerry and President Biden, we have made this an ongoing commitment in multiple ways because, of course, COP26 was an important moment, but we see that as a launching pad, not a finishing point for what has to happen.  The bottom-line reality is this:  If we’re going to make good on the need to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, whatever targets we set for it – 2045, 2050, 2055 – won’t matter unless we act now and especially over the next decade.  And that requires a number of things.  It requires countries to actually continue to raise their own ambitions.  It requires making good on implementing the policies necessary to meet those ambitions.  And for those of us in the long-developed world, it requires making good on our commitments to help finance adaptation and resilience in countries that need assistance in doing that.

The United States has a special obligation in that regard.  Historically, we’re the largest emitter.  Right now, we represent, as I said, about 15 percent of global emissions, so we are committed to doing our part.  And you don’t have to take my word for it.  It’s reflected in the budget that we have submitted to Congress.  I was just last week with the Pacific Island nations who are literally on the front lines of climate change right now, as we speak.  This is very literally existential for them.  And it was a way of also making clear our ongoing commitment to make sure that the resources are there for adaptation, for resilience.  We are committed to it.  It will be reflected in the budgets we continue to put forward.

We have a – parenthetically, we have a remarkable bipartisan delegation from our Congress here in Munich this weekend – House, Senate, Republican, Democrat.  And I think whatever policy differences there may be on some of these issues, there is also a foundational agreement that we need to address this problem and we’re committed to doing it together.

FOREIGN MINISTER BAERBOCK:  I would say thank you for your question because this is actually also my biggest fear with regard to climate change, but also with regard to other crises, because this is also one part of the strategy, in my point of view, from the Russian Government is absorbing so much extension – attention, time from all of us, from the European Union, that we do not have time for other crises.  I mean, we didn’t speak about Sahel, for example, at the moment here.  We didn’t speak about the Middle East.  And I think this is also important that we give every minute, what I was saying before, to solve this crisis now with regard to the safety of Ukraine, but on the other hand, do not forget about the rest of the world.

And the biggest fear for humankind is the climate crisis, and that’s why also, when I started my term as the new foreign minister, I always spoke about climate issues and hydrogen.  And some newspapers were asking, well, but why are you dealing now with climate if you have to solve a crisis?  Because I truly believe that this is also one of the answers to the crisis.  I mean, why is it so difficult for us to formulate strong sanctions?  Because we are highly depending, especially my country, on fossil imports from Russia.  And after 2014, we all said to ourself in Europe we have to diversify.  And we had already this chance eight years ago to combine climate issues and security issues if we would have invested more in green energy.  It’s spilled milk now, but now we can do it.

We can go now towards renewable energy with all the efforts we are having and by this making this world a bit more secure not only within Europe, but definitely also in your regions.  I mean, you are facing the climate crisis right now.  You are the countries and regions which have to resettle your capitals because of the climate crisis, and that’s why we have to work all together to fight this, but again, here, it’s such a big potential.  I mean, if we are doing energy relation cooperations around the world, especially with countries with way more space than in Germany, we can have solar energy from different regions in the world.  We can have green hydrogen and then a new connectivity.  And this is what we are working on when we were in Liverpool at G7.  We said, now we have to look that we invest money strategic-wise but also always under the umbrella of the 1.5 degree.  And that’s why also the G7 presidency has a strong nexus with the G20 presidency to bringing together the climate crisis, the chances of renewable energy, and making the world a more secure place. (Applause.)

MR HEUSGEN:   Thank you.  Thank you very much.  Actually, our time is up.  But we have the mayor of Kyiv here, and I would ask you to please have one more minute of patience for him to ask a short question and then short answers, and then we have to wrap up.  Mr. Klitschko.

QUESTION:  Good afternoon, state secretary, minister, dear friends, mayor of Kyiv, mayor of capital of Ukraine.  First of all, I want to say thank you very much for all friends who support Ukraine in this very difficult situation.  We understand without use of force, we can’t survive.  It’s very important right now – we understand that Germany, United States, all friends, support.  But we need right now defensive weapon.

Thank you for Germany during this and last couple of years billions to rebuild the infrastructure, to make reform in Ukraine.  But right now, this critical situation, we stay front to the – one of the strongest army in the world.  And every aggressor who just think to attack Ukraine have to understand:  They have to pay painful price.  We’re ready to fight.  We’re ready to defend our families, our states, our cities, our citizens.

We need support.  Thank you for 5,000 helms, but it not enough.  We can’t defend our country what – just with that.  And also, very important point come back to 1996 Budapest Agreement.  Ukraine in 1996 was third country in the world with largest nuclear weapons.  We give up our nuclear weapons with a guarantee:  United States, French, Great Britain, and Russia make a guarantee of our independency and territorial integrity.  Is not so much time in the past.  Right now, what about the Budapest Agreement?  Everybody forget about it.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

MR HEUSGEN:   Thank you very much.  Baerbock, you have already responded to the question of delivery of weapons, so maybe, Tony, you would like to say a few words there.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Sure.  Mr. Mayor, first of all, it’s good to see you, and I appreciate not only the substance of your words but also the emotion behind them.  And here’s what I can tell you, just speaking on behalf of the United States.

When it comes to security assistance, as you know, in the last year alone we provided about $650 million in defensive lethal assistance, more in the last year than in any previous year.  We continue to provide that assistance.  I personally authorized some of our partner countries who had American-made equipment to transfer that to Ukraine, Baltic countries, and we are continuing to do everything that we can with other partners to help you provide for your defense.

At the same time, I’m convinced that the work that we are doing together to bring the countries – not just in Europe but beyond Europe – together in making very clear to Russia that if it commits renewed aggression against Ukraine, there will be, as we’ve said, and I quote, “massive consequences.”  This is what the G7 countries said together.  The European Union, NATO, the power of that deterrent and our solidarity, I remain hopeful, will have an impact.

But the other thing that I think is so important, and it’s why more and more countries beyond Europe and beyond the United States are focused on this now, and I heard this at the Security Council yesterday, is I think there’s a growing recognition that what is happening in Ukraine matters first and foremost to Ukrainians, but should matter to everyone in the world because what’s at stake – first, yes, are the lives and well-being of Ukrainians, but what’s at stake are larger principles.  They’re the foundation of the entire international order, an order established after two world wars and a cold war, with some basic principles that are necessary to maintain peace and security.

And those principles are being challenged right now by Russia in Ukraine, principles like you can’t change the borders of another country by force.  Principles like you can’t dictate to another country its choices, its decisions, its policies, including with whom it will associate.  Principles like you cannot exert a sphere of influence to subjugate neighbors to your will.  In different ways, complementary ways but I believe powerful ways, countries are standing up for Ukraine and for the principles that are at stake.

So we will continue to do everything we can for you, with you, and with our partners.  (Applause.)

FOREIGN MINISTER BAERBOCK:  Also from my side, thank you for not only the question but showing again how dear the situation is, because if you’re thinking about every citizen in your country, something different being a mayor in Kyiv than being foreign minister in Germany in this kind of situation.  We’ve been in contact very closely personally, but also with your government.  And as I’ve said before, for us it’s not an easy decision.

But if we are looking – if we are endangering by taking these steps that Normandy would not work anymore, this would be, in my point of view, also big security threat for every citizen in Ukraine because especially the situation around the contact line in the separatist areas.  For every citizen there – you know it better than I do – it’s very crucial that we are coming back at the table to talk about Minsk.

But we are looking at every request because we are standing side by side with you and your citizens.  That’s why, when you asked for helmets, we were looking – my colleague here, we were looking how many helmets we could deliver.  I’m sorry it was only 5,000.  We have now a new list.  We look at the new list, what we have, what we can do.  And I think it’s really good that we have frank and open exchange about these kind of things all together.

But again, I mean, this is also what, rightly, your government is saying in those days.  We have to ensure that the destabilization doesn’t come from inside, from investments which are not coming any more from a currency which is going down.  And that’s why I truly believe that the financial support is as important as the support with regard to security.

MR HEUSGEN:   Thank you.  Thank you very much.  We could have gone on, and we have seen with the question of the ambassador of – they are from Asia – how other questions are – also have to be discussed.  And I have three takeaways.

Number one, German-American relations are at their best, and it’s wonderful to see this good relationship.  Number two – (applause) – number two, the two of you, I think, were also instrumental to forge this strong unity that goes beyond EU and NATO, that goes together with all those countries that respect the rules-based international order.  And my takeaway that this is also the way we work on other challenges.

And this comes now to the third one, and there, I think, we closed the circle to the secretary-general at the very beginning.  We can only succeed if we work together to also cope with the most pressing issues.  I think, as you said, that is climate change and others.  And we also plead to Russia to allow to come back to the political solution so we concentrate on those issues, that real matter, that our population, our people, are most concerned about.

So thank you very much for coming here.  Wonderful to have you as my first panel.  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.

FOREIGN MINISTER BAERBOCK:   Thank you.

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The economic and public health recovery from the pandemic and its effects remains fragile. Data from the Department of Labor show that labor market conditions improved in March, April, May, and June 2021 but remained worse relative to the prepandemic period. Additionally, new reported COVID-19 cases from June 5 to June 18, 2021, averaged about 13,000 per day—less than a tenth of the peak reported in January 2021 (see figure). Reported COVID-19 Cases per Day in the U.S., Mar. 1, 2020–June 18, 2021 Since GAO began reporting on the federal response to the pandemic in June 2020, it has made 72 recommendations. The agencies generally agreed with 57 of these recommendations and are in the process of implementing a majority of them; 16 of these recommendations have been fully implemented. GAO also made four matters for congressional consideration, three of which remain open. In this report, GAO is making 15 new recommendations in the areas of federal preparedness and response, delivery of benefits and services, and program integrity. GAO’s recommendations, if effectively implemented, can help improve the government’s ongoing response and recovery efforts as well as help it to prepare for future public health emergencies. GAO’s new recommendations are discussed below. COVID-19 Testing CDC has opportunities to improve collaboration and communication with stakeholders. Prior to the COVID-19 response, CDC had not developed a plan for enhancing laboratory testing capacity that identifies objectives and outlines agency and stakeholder roles and responsibilities for achieving these objectives within defined time frames. Doing so would be consistent with the stated goal of its own memorandum of understanding with public health and private laboratory partners and would also be consistent with other leading principles on sound planning that GAO has identified in its prior work. GAO recommends that CDC work with appropriate stakeholders to develop a plan to enhance surge capacity for laboratory testing. CDC agreed with this recommendation. CDC initially developed a flawed COVID-19 diagnostic test, which caused challenges for the rollout of testing nationwide. CDC has taken steps to improve its process for developing tests, but additional actions could help strengthen CDC’s preparedness and enhance the nation’s testing capacity during a future infectious disease outbreak. For example, establishing contracts with test kit manufacturers prior to a public health emergency could allow CDC to supplement the supply produced by CDC and aid in the rapid manufacturing and deployment of test kits during a future public health emergency. GAO recommends that CDC assess the agency’s needs for goods and services for the manufacturing and deployment of diagnostic test kits in public health emergencies, including the potential role of establishing contracts in advance of an emergency. CDC agreed with this recommendation. Strategic National Stockpile The Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) contains a multibillion dollar inventory of medical countermeasures—drugs, vaccines, supplies, and other materials—to respond to a broad range of public health emergencies. The SNS can be used as a short-term stopgap buffer when the supply of materials may not be immediately available in affected areas during a public health emergency. The Department of Health and Humans Services’ (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) oversees the SNS. The Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise (PHEMCE), an interagency group of experts, advises the Secretary of Health and Human Services in prioritizing, developing, procuring, deploying, and effectively using medical supplies and other countermeasures for the SNS. In the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, ASPR began restructuring the PHEMCE. This led to concerns from interagency partners regarding the effectiveness of interagency collaboration and transparency, such as a lack of clarity on how ASPR makes decisions about medical countermeasure issues, including for the SNS inventory. In addition, while the PHEMCE was being restructured, ASPR did not conduct SNS annual reviews from 2017 through 2019; these reviews result in recommendations to HHS regarding SNS procurement and are provided to Congress. According to the former Assistant Secretary who initiated the restructure, although PHEMCE was successful in advancing the development of medical countermeasures, its consensus-driven process did not reflect the urgency needed and PHEMCE proceedings created security vulnerabilities. ASPR officials acknowledged that the changes ASPR made to the PHEMCE from 2018 to 2020 did not fully achieve the desired aims and created other challenges. The office is in the process of reassessing and reestablishing new organizational processes for the PHEMCE, but it has not yet finalized planning documents, including an organizational charter and implementation plan, to guide those efforts. GAO recommends that ASPR develop and document its plans for restructuring the PHEMCE. The plans should describe how ASPR will ensure a transparent and deliberative process that engages interagency partners in PHEMCE responsibilities outlined in the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act of 2019, including those related to SNS annual reviews. These plans should also incorporate GAO’s leading practices to foster more effective collaboration, while ensuring that sensitive information is appropriately protected. HHS—which includes ASPR—agreed with this recommendation. PHEMCE interagency partners raised concerns about the transparency of PHEMCE activities and deliberations, and ASPR lacked documentation of PHEMCE activities and deliberations after 2017. ASPR was unable to provide documentation to GAO regarding PHEMCE decisions or recommendations made from 2018 to 2020; the rationale for the changes to the PHEMCE; or PHEMCE meeting agendas and minutes from 2018 to 2020. Not maintaining such documentation is inconsistent with HHS’s policy for records management and leaves Congress and key stakeholders without assurance that steps taken are advancing national preparedness for natural, accidental, and intentional threats. GAO recommends that ASPR implement records management practices that include developing, maintaining, and securing documentation related to PHEMCE activities and deliberations, including those related to the SNS. HHS, including ASPR, agreed with this recommendation. The nationwide need for supplies to respond to COVID-19 quickly exceeded the quantity of supplies contained in the SNS. Thus, ASPR used procurement processes in addition to its standard process, including direct shipment of supplies from vendors. Through this direct shipment process, supplies purchased by ASPR were not used to replenish the SNS but instead were primarily distributed from vendors directly to state, local, territorial, and tribal governments. Although ASPR has documented policies and procedures for its standard procurement process, ASPR did not have documented policies and procedures, including related control and monitoring activities, to address payment integrity risks for its direct shipment procurement process. Without written policies and procedures documenting how ASPR tracks the direct shipment and receipt of supplies before issuing payments, there is an increased risk that ASPR may make improper payments to vendors for incorrect supplies or quantities or for supplies that the intended recipients did not receive. In addition, it is difficult for management to assess the adequacy of controls over the direct shipment procurement process, and ASPR lacks assurance that its staff fully understand the process and properly and consistently perform their duties. GAO recommends that, to strengthen the current procedures for the SNS, HHS update its policies and procedures for the SNS, including related control and monitoring activities, to document the direct shipment procurement process and address payment integrity risks. Although HHS, including ASPR, did not agree with GAO regarding the need to address payment integrity risks, it stated that HHS will update its policies and procedures, including related control and monitoring activities to document the direct shipment procurement process. Domestic Medical Supply Manufacturing Before the pandemic, the U.S. generally depended on foreign suppliers for certain types of personal protective equipment (PPE), including nitrile gloves and surgical gowns. Multiple stakeholders representing manufacturers, distributors, and other purchasers noted that meaningful, transparent federal engagement with industry could enhance the resilience of domestic manufacturing and the supply chain. According to some stakeholders, such engagement with the private sector could help ramp up private investment in domestic PPE manufacturing, among other things. In January 2021, GAO reported that HHS had not developed a process for engaging with key nonfederal stakeholders and Congress for development of a supply chain strategy for pandemic preparedness, including the role of the SNS. GAO recommended that HHS do so, and the department generally agreed with GAO’s recommendation. However, as of May 2021, HHS had not implemented this recommendation. GAO continues to underscore that engaging with key nonfederal stakeholders—in meaningful, proactive ways to obtain their business and industry expertise—and with Congress is critical for developing strategies to build a sustainable domestic medical supply manufacturing base. HHS COVID-19 Funding As of May 31, 2021, Congress had appropriated to HHS approximately $484 billion in COVID-19 funds in six relief laws. The majority of HHS’s appropriations from the first five relief laws had been obligated and about half had been expended. Specifically, as of May 31, 2021, the department reported the following (see figure): Of the $324 billion appropriated in the first five COVID-19 relief laws, about $253 billion had been obligated (about 78 percent) and about $168 billion had been expended (about 52 percent). Of the $160 billion appropriated in the sixth law, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), about $75 billion had been obligated (about 47 percent) and about $3 billion had been expended (about 2 percent). HHS’s Reported COVID-19 Relief Appropriations, Obligations, and Expenditures from COVID-19 Relief Laws, as of May 31, 2021 The percentage of obligations and expenditures varied across selected COVID-19 response activities for a variety of reasons, including the nature of the activities, their planned uses, and the timing of the funds provided through the six COVID-19 relief laws. HHS uses spend plans to communicate information about its COVID-19 spending. The first five COVID-19 relief laws generally require the department to develop, update, and provide these spend plans to Congress every 60 days. The sixth relief law, ARPA, does not require a spend plan, but according to HHS officials, the department is preparing a consolidated plan that captures the first five relief laws and a separate spend plan for funding provided through ARPA. The consolidated spend plan is under internal review at HHS and the ARPA spend plan is still being finalized. As of May 2021, GAO had received and reviewed a total of 15 spend plans—the original spend plans and subsequent updates—provided by HHS. GAO found that the most current spend plans generally do not include time frames for obligating the remaining funds, which is useful information for oversight and informing future funding decisions by Congress. Guidance from the Office of Management and Budget to federal agencies, including HHS, noted the importance of spending transparency and regular reporting to help safeguard taxpayer dollars. GAO recommends that HHS communicate information about, and facilitate oversight of, the department’s use of COVID-19 relief funds by providing projected time frames for its planned spending in the spend plans it submits to Congress. HHS partially concurred with the recommendation and stated that the department would aim to incorporate some time frames on planned spending where that information may be available such as time frames for select grants to states. Higher Education Grants The Department of Education (Education) has faced inherent challenges that increase the risk of improper payments for its Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) grants to institutions of higher education to prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19. For example, funding needed to be processed and distributed expeditiously because of health and economic threats to institutions of higher education posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO tested Education’s procedures for approving and processing HEERF grants through a sample of obligations and found that the department had not effectively designed and implemented procedures needed to identify erroneous obligations after awarding the grants. GAO estimated that for 5.5 percent of schools receiving HEERF grants (about 262 of 4,764 schools in GAO’s sample), Education awarded grants that exceeded the amounts allocated—including three instances in GAO’s sample for which Education obligated $20 million more than was allocated. Officials from Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education stated that because of time and staffing constraints and the high volume of grants administered, they did not regularly perform quality assurance reviews after obligation to identify and correct erroneous obligations. GAO recommends Education design and implement procedures for regularly conducting quality assurance reviews of obligated amounts for higher education grants, including HEERF, to help identify and correct erroneous obligations in a timely manner. Education agreed with this recommendation. Coronavirus State and Local Relief and Recovery Funds COVID-19 relief laws appropriated $500 billion to the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) to provide direct funding to states, localities, tribal governments, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories to help them respond to, and recover from, the COVID-19 pandemic. This amount includes $150 billion that the CARES Act appropriated to Treasury for the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) in March 2020 as well as $350 billion that ARPA appropriated to Treasury for the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (CSLFRF) in March 2021. Recipients can use CRF payments to offset costs related to either the pandemic’s direct effects (e.g., public health needs) or its indirect effects (e.g., harm to individuals or businesses as a result of COVID-19-related closures). The CSLFRF provides payments to these recipients to cover a broader range of costs stemming from the fiscal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Single Audit Act establishes requirements for states, localities, Indian tribes, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, and nonprofit organizations that receive federal awards to undergo single audits of those awards annually when their expenditures meet a certain dollar threshold. Single audits are critical to the federal government’s ability to help safeguard the use of the billions of dollars distributed through the CRF and CSLFRF. Auditors who conduct single audits follow guidance in the Single Audit Act’s Compliance Supplement, which provides guidelines and policy for performing single audits. After consultation with federal agencies, OMB annually updates and issues the supplement. Auditors have reported that the timing of the supplement is critical in allowing them to effectively plan their work. The timely issuance of single audit guidance is critical to ensuring timely completion and reporting of single audits to inform the federal government about actions needed to help safeguard the use of the billions of dollars distributed through the CRF and CSLFRF. GAO recommends that OMB, in consultation with Treasury, issue timely and sufficient single audit guidance for auditing recipients’ uses of payments from the CSLFRF. OMB neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. Economic Impact Payments The CARES Act, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, and ARPA authorized Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to issue three rounds of economic impact payments (EIP) as direct payments to help individuals alleviate financial stress due to the pandemic. (See figure.) To publicize information about how to file a tax return with the IRS to receive an EIP, IRS partners with organizations that work with communities that may not traditionally interact with IRS, such as lower-income families, senior citizens, veterans, tribal communities, and families with mixed-immigration status. According to officials from IRS partner organizations, ensuring eligible nonfilers receive their payments continues to be a challenge. Partners also told GAO their outreach efforts to nonfilers could be more effective if the partners had current data that could help identify specific communities of nonfilers who may need assistance. Total Number and Amount of Economic Impact Payments (EIP) Disbursed, Rounds 1, 2, and 3, as of May 28, 2021 In January 2021, Treasury began analyzing nearly 9 million notices it had sent to nonfilers who may be eligible for the first round of EIP payments. However, Treasury does not plan to complete this analysis until fall 2021, more than 6 months after the third round of EIP payments began to be issued. This timing would limit the findings’ usefulness for informing EIP outreach efforts. By waiting to complete the analysis, Treasury and IRS are missing an opportunity to identify communities that may have a higher number of nonfilers and to use that information to inform their outreach efforts as well as the efforts of their outreach partners.GAO recommends that Treasury, in coordination with IRS, release interim findings on the effectiveness of the notices it sent in September 2020 to potentially EIP-eligiblenonfilers; incorporate that analysis into IRS outreach efforts as appropriate; and then, if necessary, release an update based on new analysis after the 2021 filing season. Treasury neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. Tax Relief for Businesses To provide liquidity to businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CARES Act and other COVID-19 relief laws included tax measures to reduce certain tax obligations, including measures related to net operating loss carryback claims. In some cases, these reductions of obligations led to cash refunds. The Internal Revenue Code and the CARES Act generally require IRS to issue certain refunds within 90 days from the date when a complete application for a tentative carryback adjustment is filed or 90 days from the last day of the month in which the return is due, whichever is later. IRS data show that the agency is not meeting the statutory refund requirement for these relief measures and that as of May 1, 2021, the average processing time for refunds was 154 days, excluding additional time for final processing and distribution. IRS officials said it is taking longer to process returns because IRS facilities that process paper returns continue to operate at reduced capacity to accommodate social distancing. In the meantime, transparent communication about these issues could help taxpayers know when to expect their refunds. Specifically, an explanation on IRS’s website that processing times for tentative refunds may exceed the expected 90 days because of service disruptions would provide taxpayers with more accurate information and expectations for receiving a refund. GAO recommends that IRS clearly communicate on its website that there are delays beyond the statutory 90-day timeline in processing tentative refunds. IRS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. 2021 Tax Filing Season IRS is experiencing delays in processing certain returns received in 2021, resulting in extended time frames for processing returns for some taxpayers. IRS reported that it is taking longer than usual to manually review some of these returns. Specifically, as of the end of the 2021 filing season, IRS had about 25.5 million unprocessed individual and business returns, including about 1.2 million returns from its 2020 backlog, and 13.7 million returns that it had suspended because of errors. IRS staff must manually review these returns with errors. IRS typically has unprocessed returns in its inventory at the end of the filing season, but not to this extent. For example, at the end of the 2019 filing season, IRS had 8.3 million unprocessed individual and business returns, including 2.7 million returns suspended for errors. IRS’s annual tax filing activities include processing more than 150 million individual and business tax returns electronically or on paper. With significantly more returns currently being held for manual review than in prior years, more taxpayers are trying to get information about the status of their returns and refunds. However, taxpayers have had difficulty obtaining status updates on their refunds from IRS, either by phone or online. IRS’s website does not contain all of the relevant information regarding delays in processing 2021 returns and issuing taxpayers’ refunds. Additionally, IRS’s automated message on its toll-free telephone line for individual taxpayers has not been updated to explain refund delays or to include any other alerts associated with the 2021 filing season.GAO recommends that IRS update relevant pages of its website and, if feasible, add alerts to its toll-free telephone lines to more clearly and prominently explain the nature and extent of individual refund delays occurring for returns that taxpayers filed in 2021. IRS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. This report contains additional recommendations related to disseminating information related to leave benefits for employees. Why GAO Did This Study As of mid-June 2021, the U.S. had about 33.4 million reported cases of COVID-19 and about 593,000 reported deaths, according to CDC. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions from the pandemic. Six relief laws, including the CARES Act, had been enacted as of May 31, 2021, to address the public health and economic threats posed by COVID-19. As of May 31, 2021, of the $4.7 trillion appropriated by these six laws for COVID-19 relief—including about $1.6 trillion appropriated by ARPA, which was enacted in March 2021—the federal government had obligated a total of $3.5 trillion and had expended $3.0 trillion, as reported by federal agencies. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report examines the federal government’s continued efforts to respond to, and recover from, the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO reviewed data, documents, and guidance from federal agencies about their activities. GAO also interviewed federal officials; representatives from organizations for states and localities; and other stakeholders, including manufacturers of PPE (e.g., N95 respirators, surgical masks, and nitrile gloves).

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    This electronic supplement serves as a companion to GAO-21-104071 2020 Census: Office Managers’ Perspectives on Recent Operations Would Strengthen Planning for 2030 Census. The purpose of this supplement is to provide regional and national summaries of the six waves of our survey of the Census Bureau’s 248 area census office managers on their perspectives during the 2020 Census.

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