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Wednesday Q+A with Jeanne Shaheen

The senator from New Hampshire discusses her recent trip to the Balkans, efforts to deter Russia, and the global gag rule on abortion.

Jeanne Shaheen is the senior senator representing the state of New Hampshire. She is the only female lawmaker on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and she also sits on the Armed Services Committee. Shaheen spoke with Cristina Maza about funding to support Ukraine, her recent visit to the Western Balkans, and the rights of women and girls globally. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Congress is moving the $40 billion aid bill for Ukraine forward. That’s over 65 percent of the entire annual State Department budget. Do you think that Congress will have to pass more supplemental funding for Ukraine soon, and are you concerned that there might be some fatigue from lawmakers when it comes to appropriating more money for Ukraine?

We’re voting as we speak on the motion to proceed with the $40 billion in aid. What I have heard from my colleagues on both sides of the aisle is strong support for helping Ukraine in any way possible, to make sure they have the military hardware and ammunition that they need, to help with humanitarian aid, and with economic assistance.

There’s about $5 billion in … food aid to help places that are affected by the war in Ukraine because it’s such a breadbasket for much of Europe and the Middle East.

What were some of the main takeaways from your trip to the Western Balkans?

I’m sure you’re aware of Serbia’s historic ties with Russia and President [Aleksandar] Vucic’s relationship with Putin. I think he’s looking at where the future of Serbia lies given the war in Ukraine and whether partnering with Russia as an ally is in the best interest of Serbia. That’s my analysis of what’s happening there.

Serbia is obviously very important to the Western Balkans, and I hope that he is going to look at ways to diminish those ties that Serbia has with Russia.

In Kosovo, they have a president who is relatively new, President [Vjosa] Osmani, and a prime minister, [Albin] Kurti. They have historic challenges with Serbia, and the two countries are still engaged in a dialogue to address the issues that are outstanding, but there has been very little progress made in recent months.

Serbia is the most pro-Russian country in the Balkans, and it also has a close economic relationship with China. What can the U.S. do to strengthen the West’s relationship with Serbia and counter the influence of U.S. adversaries in Central Europe?

One of the things we must continue to do is pay attention. We had a bipartisan delegation that I think was an important message to send to the leaders of the countries we visited, that these are issues of concern on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the aisle support the Biden administration’s policies on Putin and Ukraine.

We are all concerned about what is happening in that part of Europe. Our trip was followed by a visit from Assistant Secretary [of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen] Donfried, who we had a chance to talk to before she left and visited six countries in the Western Balkans.

Serbia has historic ties with Russia, but they are also looking at the [European Union], and they’re an aspirant country. And one of the things that would be reassuring to all of the countries we visited is to see progress on the part of the other Balkan countries that are looking for entry into the EU.

Do you think the EU is moving fast enough on integrating these countries? And is there anything the U.S. could do to speed up the process or support the process?

One of the reasons for the delegation was to see if there were ways that we could support normalization [of ties between Serbia and Kosovo] and efforts to integrate faster into the EU the countries of the Western Balkans.

We have some requests that we’re looking at in terms of the appropriations process that I think will be important to promote democracy and anti-corruption efforts. Those are very important.

There’s an envoy who has been appointed by the EU who I think is going to be here this week or next. There will be an opportunity to hear a report from him on how those discussions are going, [and] to continue to work closely with the EU and see how we can provide support for the progress that is being made there.

You sent a letter to the State Department warning that Bosnian Serb politician Milorad Dodik is destabilizing the country, and you said you welcome a continued dialogue between the Europe subcommittee and the State Department. What kind of follow-up have you had with the State Department on this issue, and did it come up on your trip to the region?

It did. In fact, we went from Kosovo to Brussels and had a meeting with a number of NATO ambassadors about what we heard on our trip and concerns, especially with respect to the [European Union Force] mission in Bosnia. That has to be reauthorized this fall, and there is a real concern, that I share, that Russia is not going to support reauthorization. They can block it if they choose.

We want to make sure people are thinking about that and thinking about what the alternatives are. NATO has a mission in Bosnia as well that is part of that EUFOR mission, and so we wanted to raise that with the NATO ambassadors. We also raised it with Assistant Secretary Donfried and [Deputy Assistant Secretary Gabriel] Escobar before they left for the Western Balkans, and I talked to them when they returned about our concerns.

I’ve continued to raise that issue with officials in the Department of Defense that I’ve met with, as well as [the State Department].

This is obviously a critical moment for NATO. You plan to attend the NATO summit next month. What do you hope will come out of that meeting? Do you have any upcoming plans for the NATO Observer Group?

Senator Thom Tillis and I cochair the NATO Observer Group, and we’re going to be heading up that delegation to the NATO summit in Madrid. I hope what we're going to see is an interest in swiftly moving forward with Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO.

One of the things we need to do here in the Senate would be to ratify that agreement. We want to make sure that people understand why it’s so important and that we’re there to answer questions and show strong bipartisan support for what NATO is doing in Eastern Europe, and being a bulwark against Putin and Russia, and what they are doing in Ukraine and the efforts to support Ukraine.

You’ve advocated for permanently repealing the global gag rule. Do you think there’s any hope for permanently repealing it when access to abortion is also under threat in this country?

I think it’s going to be really challenging. We’ve been successful in past years at repealing global gag at the Appropriations Committee level, where we had the votes to do that. I think we still have the votes to do that. But didn’t have the votes in the broader Senate, and that remains a challenge.

Again, I’m very happy that President Biden has done this by executive order. But what that global gag rule does is put at risk women and families in countries around the world who have a ping-pong effect because of United States foreign policy.

During the Trump administration, it was in place. During the Obama administration, it wasn't in place. During the Biden administration, it’s not in place. The Trump administration expanded on it to cover all health care in ways that we're still seeing the impacts from now.

The important thing, I believe, for women and families around the world is to repeal this policy. If you don't support abortion, what you want is for families, for women to have access to family-planning services. And what we know is that when the global gag rule is in place, the number of unintended pregnancies goes up, the number of maternal deaths goes up.

The situation for women and girls is getting harder in Afghanistan. Is there anything the U.S. could do to protect some of the rights women won under the previous government now that there’s no longer a U.S. presence in the country?

In the final weeks of the United States's presence in Afghanistan, I had a chance to Zoom with a number of women leaders in the country. And when I asked them, ‘What can we do to support you?’ the No. 1 issue that they raised was to continue to talk and speak out about what's happening to women and girls in the country, ask the president to speak out, and ask the secretary of State, look for every opportunity that you can to talk about what's happening. I think we need to continue to do that.

In March, Senators [Susan] Collins, [Joni] Ernst, and I visited the United Nations and had a series of meetings with different UN entities that are working in Afghanistan about what they're doing there to try and address the challenges that women and girls are facing.

The nutrition challenges, obviously—hunger is a big issue in Afghanistan. Education for girls, and the fact that the Taliban has basically reneged on everything they committed to do—I think continuing to raise those issues, and continuing to look for ways that we can support getting assistance and humanitarian aid to women and their children in Afghanistan, is critical.