U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken discusses the Biden-Harris administration’s approach to foreign policy challenges and opportunities, including managing the relationship with China, the war in Ukraine, deepening America’s alliances and partnerships, and other U.S. priorities.
HAASS: It is June 28, 2023. And I want to welcome the several hundred people in the room here today in New York, and the far larger number watching around the country and the world—I want to welcome everyone to the Council on Foreign Relations. For those of you who aren’t familiar with us, we’re an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, educator, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for our members, government officials, business executives, journalists, teachers and students, civic and religious leaders, and other citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy challenges facing this country.
I’m Richard Haass, CFR’s president. And this morning we’re fortunate to welcome back one of our most distinguished members, Antony Blinken. He’s had a long and distinguished career serving as staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and any number of senior positions in the Clinton and Obama administrations. And now, as everyone in this room and beyond knows, he is the seventy-first secretary of state. Speaking of numbers, we here at CFR don’t just think of him as seventy-one. (Laughter.) We refer to him as twenty-seven. There have been twenty-eight secretaries of state since 1921, when CFR was founded. And Secretary Blinken is the twenty-seventh to appear here at CFR, and one of sixteen to speak here while in office.
BLINKEN: Who did you miss, Richard?
HAASS: Interestingly enough, it was John Marshall. Can’t quite read into that. (Laughter.) Just is. Just is. I guess if you have a name—a plan named for you, you won’t be invited back, something like that.
BLINKEN: Something like that. (Laughter.)
HAASS: Timing accounts for a lot in life. And our timing could hardly be better. The secretary has recently traveled to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to China, to Europe. And over the past few days he and his colleagues have been closely monitoring news out of Russia. And all this and more against the backdrop of a war in Europe that has now entered its seventeenth month. All of which to say, is we are more likely to lack for time than topics. The two of us will begin with a half-hour or so of conversation and then open it up to members for questions. Want to say again that today’s meeting is on the record. And I want to welcome the secretary. And, I might add, Tony, that you and I—you today have had the sort of day I can empathize with, I can relate to. You go to Morning Joe, then you come to the Council on Foreign Relations. (Laughter.)
BLINKEN: Thank you. Thank you.
HAASS: Great to have you.
Before we get into some detailed questions, I want to take a step back. So we—let’s start with your overall assessment of the world. You get up in the morning. Got a lot on your plate. When you look out, where do you see the greatest danger? Where do you see the greatest opportunity?
BLINKEN: Thank you. Before getting into that, let me say two things: First, it is wonderful to be back in this room. I’ve spent many happy, enlightening hours here, sitting in this audience, occasionally being on this platform. It’s great to see so many people together, not just in virtual space. And one other thing. My understanding is that this is Richard’s last event as president of CFR. So it’s hard to think of anyone who’s done more to make this institution what it is over the last two decades. Extraordinary work. And I think it’s fitting to start with, if everyone would, a round of applause for Richard Haass. (Applause.)
HAASS: I want to thank him for that, but I’m still going to ask him tough questions. (Laughter.)
BLINKEN: I tried. I tried.
So I think for most of us, as we’re looking at where we are, I think there’s a recognition that we really are at an inflection point. An inflection comes around every few generations where there’s such profound changes taking place that in many ways the decisions that we’re making right now are likely to shape what comes next, not just for the next few years but arguably for the next few decades. And we’re at one of those moments.
I think from where we sit, where I sit—this won’t be news to a lot of people in this room—the post-Cold War era is over. And there is a profound competition underway right now to shape what comes next. We had a strong consensus coming out of the Cold War. We thought that major power competition was over. We thought we’d have an integrated global economy in which commerce ultimately trumped geopolitical competition. We thought we’d have former rivals working together to deal with big transnational problems. And I think we all thought that political and economic openness would be mutually reinforcing.
And to some extent, I don’t want to minimize it, we did have in many ways an era of extraordinary progress. I think if you take the Stephen Pinker view of the world and step back and look in the aggregate, at least until the Great Recession and arguably even until COVID, in the aggregate we did see the world getting safer, more prosperous, a little bit more equal, healthier, wiser. And so I think there was a view that we were on a relatively positive trajectory.
But then, of course, we’ve seen the emergence of major disruptors that are now, I think, pushing us past that era that we hoped would be lasting but turns out not to be. Obviously, the rise of China that has both the power and the intent to change the system that we’re living in. A revanchist Russia that we’re dealing with every single day. A panoply of interrelated and, unfortunately, mutually reinforcing transnational challenges—global challenges that we have to find a way to deal with effectively.
And with all of that, I think a few things that have—we’ve all experienced that we’re grappling with the consequences of right now. Even as, arguably, inequities between countries grew less, we’ve seen inequities within them grow. We’ve seen information systems proliferate in a way that has gotten beyond what we anticipated. The democratization of information has had all of the unintended, and second-, and third-order consequences that people know. We’ve had a democratic recession around the world. We’ve made—had something of a democratic recession here at home.
And all of these things together have created, I think, a perfect storm moment which makes this an inflection point. So for us, the challenge is how do we organize ourselves best to deal with that, to deal on the one hand with the emergence or re-emergence of great power rivalries? But also with a tsunami of transnational challenges that are having a profound effect on the lives of our own citizens—whether it is health, whether it is migration, whether it’s food insecurity, whether it’s energy. You all know the list, and we can go down it. And of course, the geopolitical competition part, the transnational challenge part, are profoundly interrelated in ways that we can get into.
We have a vision that is clear and unambiguous of what we’d like the world to become—free, secure, open, prosperous. And that’s a cliché, but it actually means something. It means societies in which individuals can choose their own lives freely. It means countries that are free to decide what their path will be, who their partners will be. It means an international system that’s built around rules transparently, applied fairly and equitably, with goods, with information, with people flowing lawfully and freely. And it means technology used to uplift people not to keep them down.
On the other hand, we have, increasingly, some actors, some countries that want to erase many of the rules, the norms, the standards that we’ve developed over seventy-five years as a Western construct that shouldn’t apply to them. We have a reassertion in some cases of spheres of influence. We have countries that are using predatory nonmarket practices to gain economic power and influence. We have the weaponization of dependencies, the weaponization of information. And we have assertions that what we see as universal rights are purely internal questions.
So there are two very different views of the world. And there may well be a desire on the part of those who have a different view for a world order, but it’s an illiberal one. And ours remains at heart a liberal one. So there’s going to be a contest to shape this future. As we’re thinking about this, and as we’re acting on it, I think we start—and I’ll be brief—we start with trying to put the strongest possible foundation in place to be able to deal with this changed world, to be able to deal with this competition.
It starts with everything we’ve done to invest in ourselves, in our own competitiveness. I can go through the litany but, again, you all know it. But if you look at the investments that have been made over the last almost three years now, they are historic in nature—from the infrastructure bill, to the CHIPS Act, to the IRA. And I can feel this everywhere I go around the world.
But second, and this is where we come in—where the State Department comes in—working not only to rejuvenate, to revive, and in some cases to reform our alliances and partnerships, but also to build some new ones that are more fit for purpose. And the way I’m thinking about this, Richard, is a phrase that my colleagues are sick of hearing me say, but it’s kind of variable geometry. As you’ve seen, we’ve spent a tremendous effort to try to reinvigorate, rejuvenate existing alliances like NATO, like our partnerships in East Asia, I can go down the list.
But at the same time, we’ve also been building fit-for-purpose partnerships where different collections of countries—and not just countries, other stakeholders, other actors, the private sector, the nongovernmental world—come together to try to tackle discrete problems. We’ve built coalitions on global health and COVID. We built coalitions on food security. We’re about to announce one on synthetic opioids. And in each case, our purpose is to find ways of bringing countries together to effectively deploy their resources, their knowledge, their information to tackle these problems.
I’ll end with this. And I know this is something that—Richard, that resonates with you in many of your writings. I came to this with two very basic propositions. And I’ve seen those propositions, I think, validated by the experience we’ve had over the last three years. One is that if the United States is not engaged, if we’re not leading, then one of two things. Either someone else is, and probably not in a way that advances our own interests and values; or no one is and then you’re going to have a vacuum that’s probably going to be filled by bad things before it’s filled by good things.
The flip side of that coin is, in the thirty-or-so years that I’ve been doing this, I don’t think there has ever been a greater premium than there is now on finding new ways to cooperate, to coordinate, to collaborate, both with other countries, institutions, and a variety of other stakeholders who are empowered in ways that they were never before and so can be disruptors, if you’re not getting them on the takeoff not just the landing. If you care about climate, we’re 15 percent of global emissions. We get everything right at home, that doesn’t account for the other 85 percent. We’ve got to find ways to bring others along.
If you’re concerned about what we’ve experienced over the last three-plus years with COVID, we know that even if we do everything right here if there’s another variant out there somewhere it can undermine everything we’ve done. So we have to build stronger global health systems. If you care about the technology that’s in our pockets, that’s shaping our lives every day—the norms, the rules, and the standards that go along with that technology—it’s probably being shaped in some windowless room in an international organization. So we have to find ways to make sure that not only are we in the room, not only are we at the table, but hopefully we’re at the head of the table.
So that’s what we’ve been working to do. And I think on the big issues—on dealing with Russia, on dealing with China—we’ve managed to build greater convergence with other key players in the international system than we’ve seen. And on these big global challenges that are having a real effect on the lives of people here too, we’re finding new ways to partner with countries, with institutions, to try to get at them, to try to get achievable results. Sometimes it takes a while. COVID’s a good example of where we were probably slow off the mark, but once we got going we had a real effect. So that’s what I’m concerned with. It’s putting in place and acting on these new building blocks, this new variable geometry of a world in which we can advance and shape the post-Cold War era.
HAASS: And if you were going to have to sum that up, is that what—from your point of view—amounts to a Biden doctrine? I mean, how—what are you trying to—I know you’re right in terms of a world defined by geopolitics and transnational issues. You define you want to basically have a liberal world order. To get from here to there, which is what doctrines are all about, how would you sum that up?
BLINKEN: Summed up really simply in that it starts at home. It starts with our strength at home, with our competitiveness, with the investments we’re making. And then it goes to making sure that we are strengthening and, as necessary, forging new alliances and new partnerships. Because we can’t do it alone. So to the extent there’s a doctrine—and I always resist doctrines—it really is: Invest in ourselves at home and build these partnerships abroad.
HAASS: Well, if you want to resist doctrines you’ve done it well, because you didn’t quite give us a bumper sticker.
BLINKEN: Good. (Laughter.)
HAASS: OK. Let’s turn to Russia. Let’s turn to the news at hand. You said on Sunday that events revealed, quote/unquote, “real cracks” there. So it’s a few days later. Is it your and your colleagues’ sense that these cracks are widening? Do we know enough? Is it just the opposite, we see these cracks narrowing? What is our sense of what’s transpired in the last few days, which way the arrows are going?
BLINKEN: Well, first, this is a moving picture and I don’t think we’ve seen the last act. And I think we have to have a certain amount of humility in any predictions we make about where this is going. But I think we can say this, or at least we know this much: First, you know, if you take a step back, it is genuinely extraordinary that we’ve gone from a place where we were sixteen months ago where you had Russian forces on the outskirts of Kyiv. They thought they would take the city in a matter of days. They thought they would erase Ukraine from the map as an independent country. To a place where we were this weekend where you had forces moving on Russia’s capital, Moscow—mercenaries of Putin’s own making.
That, in a way, encapsulates the extent to which this aggression against Ukraine has been a failure across the board for Putin. And we see it by virtually every metric. Russia is worse off economically. It’s worse off militarily. Its standing in the world has plummeted. It’s managed to wean Europe off of Russian energy in the space of a little over a year. It’s managed to help NATO become stronger, more united, and bigger. And of course, it’s managed to alienate virtually every Ukrainian and also unite Ukraine as never before.
This last episode showing to some extent the internal dimensions of this failure I think speaks volumes. But I don’t want to predict where this is going to go, when it’s going to get there. I do know that Putin has a lot of new questions that he has to answer for.
HAASS: In some ways you’re echoing Prigozhin’s critique of—basically of this war.
BLINKEN: Well, far be it from me to—(laughter)—let’s keep this in mind. (Laughter.) Mr. Prigozhin is, like Mr. Putin, someone who has committed horrific atrocities in Ukraine, in Africa, in Syria. Wherever Wagner goes, death, destruction, and exploitation follow. But the fact, Richard, that he directly challenged President Putin, the fact that, as you said, he questioned the very premises that Putin has advanced for the war, is significant. But again, how this plays out in Russia, it is ultimately an internal issue for them and they’re going to have to work through it.
HAASS: OK. So how it plays out—I agree with you. One place where we can be more than a bystander is when it comes to policy towards Ukraine. So the question is—we’re now in month seventeen. Given what’s happened, do we dial up or down what we say, what we do, differently because of what’s happened the last five days?
BLINKEN: The short answer is no. I think what we’ve done and what we’re doing in terms of building a pretty remarkable coalition that has sustained itself for sixteen months now—I think is actually even more solid than at the outset in terms of its support for Ukraine, exerting pressure on Russia, strengthening our own defensive alliance. We’re sticking with that program. The only thing I’d say is that besides the rather extraordinary effort that’s been underway to help Ukraine in the moment to make sure that it has everything it needs for this counteroffensive where it’s trying to take back more of the land that was seized from it by Russia, there’s also a longer-term aspect to this, and it’s important in a number of ways.
And the longer-term aspect is this: First, making sure that we’re also working in a sustainable way to help Ukraine build up its deterrent and defense capacity for the medium and the long term so that Putin could not repeat this exercise in a year, in two years, in five years. And the flip side of that is something I just came back from in London. There was a reconstruction conference that brought together not only countries that care about Ukraine, not only the international financial institutions, but also the private sector—which ultimately is going to be the difference between a Ukraine that survives and a Ukraine that thrives, if the investment’s forthcoming.
And this longer-term plan is hugely important in two ways. First, because it is the difference between a Ukraine that actually really succeeds. But second, because the biggest impediment right now to finding peace, a just and durable peace—and we can come back to that—the biggest impediment to getting to how we know this has to end at some point, a negotiation, diplomacy, is President Putin’s conviction that he can outlast Ukraine and he can outlast all of us. The more we’re able to disabuse him of that notion, the more likely it is that at some point he’ll come to the table.
HAASS: So building on that, could one element of that be, whether when we get together with our allies in two weeks or some other point, that we extend Ukraine assurances? Charlie Kupchan and I have written about Article 4 assurances under the NATO treaty. Some have advocated Article 5. I think that might be premature. What matters more is what you think. Some have talked about the model of the Israeli relationship. But why not think about assurances for Ukraine which further signals Putin that time is not his friend?
BLINKEN: Richard, I think that’s—I think that’s exactly right. And I’ve read carefully what you and Charlie wrote, as I always do. (Laughter.)
HAASS: It’s in Foreign Affairs magazine. I want to mention that. Get one for the home team.
BLINKEN: Available at a newsstand near you. (Laughter.) There are two things that I think are important. One is you’re going to see at the NATO summit a very robust package for Ukraine, political and practical. I’m not going to get ahead of where we land in Vilnius, but I’m pretty confident in that. Second, at the same time, a number of us are looking—by “a number of us,” I mean a number of countries—are looking at, in parallel, in addition to what happens at NATO, what can we do to just what I said a moment ago, which is to help Ukraine build up its long-term deterrent and defense capacity? And there’s a lot that goes into that, but I’m also pretty confident that that’s a place we got to get to.
HAASS: So let’s go to another place you recently were in, which was China. What is your definition of success? What is a realistic goal for American foreign policy towards China?
BLINKEN: There’s—at least in the near term, maybe even in the lifetimes of most people in this room—I don’t think a clear finish line. This is more about getting to a place where we have peaceful and maybe somewhat more productive coexistence between us, because the bottom line is this: China is not going away. We’re not going away. So in the first instance we have to find a way to coexist and coexist peacefully. We know we’re in an intense competition. We talked about the competition to try to shape the post-Cold War era.
At the same time, we are determined that that competition not veer into conflict, which would be terrible for everyone involved. And it starts with some basics. It starts with actually building back sustained lines of communication. That was the purpose of the trip I made at the president’s behest, to start to build that back. And I think you’re going to start to see more engagement in both directions, with senior Chinese officials coming here, senior Americans going there.
Second, it is about dealing directly, clearly, candidly with the profound differences that we have. And at the very least making sure that there’s a greater understanding of where we’re coming from, what our intent is, and hopefully learning a little bit more from them about where they’re coming from and what their intent is. And then, finally, there are areas where, if it’s in our mutual interest, we should find ways to cooperate. We talked about that as well.
But this is a long-term competition. As I said, I don’t think there’s a finish line, but we want to make sure that in that competition we’re in a position of strength where we are, as I said, able to shape what comes next. And I think, from my perspective at least, we are approaching this from a position of strength precisely because of the investments we’ve made in our competitiveness, precisely because of the convergence that we’ve built with key partners in Europe, key partners in Asia, on how to approach the challenges that China poses.
HAASS: So I’m listening to you closely and I was struck by your language, because you said our goal is to coexist peacefully. Well I’m old enough, as are several people in this room, to remember when peaceful coexistence was the phrase that for decades dominated or characterized U.S.-Soviet relations. What are we to read into that?
BLINKEN: Only that, again, we’re—neither of us is going away. So at a minimum, that has to be, I think, the baseline. As I said, we’re determined to make sure that in everything that we’re doing the two different worlds that I tried to sketch briefly and what they might look like—the free, open, prosperous, secure world that we’re trying to build; a somewhat more different and more illiberal model that others, including China, are driving toward—that our vision prevails.
HAASS: But implicit in the phrase “peaceful coexistence” is less what you’re trying to accomplish and more what you’re trying to avoid. That was true of the Cold War. Do you think that’s a fair characterization of the U.S.-China relationship, it’s more what we’re trying to avert rather than what we can realistically accomplish?
BLINKEN: No, I think—I think it’s both. I think it—we have a responsibility. We have an obligation, that we hear from around the world, to manage the relationship responsibly. And that gets to the peaceful coexistence part. We hear this demand signal everywhere. But that doesn’t mean that we’re standing still. It doesn’t mean that we’re accepting that as the goal. But it is the foundation. And from there, as I say, we’re in a competition. We want to make sure that in that competition, that competition to shape this new era, our vision prevails.
HAASS: So let me raise what could be the greatest threat to that ability, which is Taiwan. And if I may quote Secretary of State Blinken—(laughter)—I always hate it when people quote me, by the way. Last October you said, referring to Taiwan, “What’s changed is this: the decision by the government in Beijing that the status quo is no longer acceptable, that they wanted to speed up the process by which they would pursue unification.”
You just spent time there. You spoke to Wang Yi. You spoke to the foreign—Qin Gang, the foreign minister. You spoke, obviously, to President Xi. What take did you make on their views on Taiwan? Did you come away with any different sense of their either aspirations or, more important, timetables, risk propensities?
BLINKEN: Let’s start with this: I think my opening premise is that for the better part of five decades this is a challenge, an issue, that we’ve actually managed responsibly. And doing that was premised on a few very basic principles. One is that any differences between Beijing and Taiwan would be resolved peacefully. That neither side would engage in unilateral changes to the status quo. And the result of that—the result of a consistent policy through multiple administrations—Republican, Democrat alike—founded on one China—has meant that we have managed it responsibly.
I think what changed is this, at least in our judgment. Obviously, China has a different narrative. But if you go back to 2016—not last year, not just in recent months. But if you go back to 2016, we’ve seen Beijing taking actions that suggest that the status quo was not acceptable. And we’ve seen that in some of the military operations that they’ve been engaged in, the deployment of forces, the exercises, the missile tests, et cetera.
We’ve seen that in the economic coercion exerted against Taiwan and, for that matter, exerted against countries that have relationships with Taiwan. We’ve seen that in the effort to pry Taiwan out of the international system. And all of this is a stirring of the pot that is antithetical to the preservation of the status quo. So one of the things that we tried to communicate very clearly is not only the consistency of our policy, and our approach, and our determination to maintain the status quo, but also the concerns not just for the United States but of countries around the world about anything—any actions that would disrupt it.
And there’s a very clear reason for this. Even as China, of course, asserts that these are sovereign issues that should be relevant to no one else and of interest to no one else, we all know this. Fifty percent of commercial traffic, trade, goes through that strait every single day—50 percent of container traffic in the world. Seventy percent of semiconductors that we use from everything from our smartphones, to our washing machines, to our automobiles, made on Taiwan. If there were to be a crisis as a result of actions that either side takes that takes that offline, you’ve got potentially a global economic crisis. It’s one of the reasons—maybe the main reason—that country after country is going to both of us and saying: We expect the responsible management of this issue to be sustained. That’s exactly where we are. And I tried to share that very clearly and directly with our Chinese counterparts.
HAASS: OK, so I agree with you on the stakes. And I agree that China over recent decades has, shall we say, moved to change the status quo in certain ways by what it’s done militarily and diplomatically. So four times your boss, the President of the United States, has said that the U.S. would help defend Taiwan if it were attacked by China. And four times the White House staff has walked him back. So what is our policy? And why aren’t we basically telling China, within the context of a one China policy, you’ve done things to increase the threat, we’re going to do things to increase the—your understanding that you cannot move against Taiwan with impunity?
BLINKEN: Richard? (Laughter.)
HAASS: Yes, sir?
BLINKEN: We continue to be guided by the one China policy based on—(laughter)—the three communiques, the Taiwan Relations Act, and the six assurances. That hasn’t changed and that won’t change. (Laughter.)
HAASS: Mr. Secretary—(laughter)—we can do all that and still increase the certainty with which we communicate to China that we are there for Taiwan if they use coercion.
BLINKEN: And I think it’s evident not only in what we’re saying but also in what we’re doing that we are there for Taiwan. Under the Taiwan Relations Act we’ve had a longstanding policy of making sure that we could do what’s necessary to help Taiwan defend itself. That policy and the sort of rheostat on it also depends a lot on what Beijing is doing or not doing. And that was designed in from the get-go, including in the communiques.
HAASS: OK. (Laughter.) Let me raise one other aspect of Taiwan—of China. So while you were there you raised the fentanyl issue. And I read the language closely. And I have spent some time in that same building you are. And this was a triumph of diplomatic—diplo-speak.
BLINKEN: Thank you. (Laughter.)
HAASS: Where the two sides agreed to explore the creation of a working group. (Laughter.) Love that. Love that. So there was that. And then I saw that China basically—however you say not now or take a hike in Mandarin—on establishing mil-mil crisis communications. So my question is on those two issues, am I misreading it? And then on other issues—for example, China’s willingness to participate in the next round of nuclear arms control talks. The last time I raised it with a senior Chinese official he basically said: No way. We’ve got to build up our nuclear arms. We’re not interested. Do you get the sense that when China is looking at all these issues—where did you come away with optimism? Was it any of these issues? Was it possibly Ukraine? Is there any area where, again, you see some potential upside in China’s diplomatic openness?
BLINKEN: Well, first, just taking the issues that you’ve mentioned, let’s start with fentanyl. And there’s a good reason to start with fentanyl. And in a sense, it’s really worth pausing on this for a second because, as I suspect most people know in this room, the number one killer—the number one killer of Americans aged 18 to 49 is fentanyl. So if you start from that premise, it makes sense that you’d want to be focusing a lot of your time, and resources, and effort on that. And we are. And indeed, as I mentioned, in just a couple weeks’ time we’ll be moving forward with a broader international coalition to deal with this.
And it’s a problem and a challenge that we’ve been facing for some time. We’re doing it holistically, by which I mean there’s a lot that has to go on in the United States, including reducing demand, dealing with treatment. At the same time major law enforcement challenges. We have our border and making sure, to the best of our ability, that synthetic opioids can’t get over the border with impunity. There’s a lot of technology that goes into that. Working with Mexico, where the synthetic opioids are created.
But there’s, of course, as everyone knows, a China dimension to this problem. Because the precursors that go into the fabrication of fentanyl are right now primarily made in China. And they are then diverted—sometimes knowingly, sometimes not knowingly—to criminal enterprises that turn them into fentanyl close to our border, and then send them into our country.
So it’s profoundly in our interest to see if we can get cooperation from China to deal with this problem. We’ve had some successes in the past, including their decision a few years ago to stop the exportation of fentanyl itself. But the chemical precursors are where the problem is now. There’s a lot that goes into this in terms of trying to elicit that cooperation even as we are taking action against any institute, institution, company, and individuals we find that are engaged in this illicit trade.
I believe, based on the sentence that you read, that we’re actually getting to a place where we might actually get practical cooperation from China. And this is not as a favor to us. This is because what we’re seeing around the world is a demand signal, because fentanyl is now hitting many more countries. We’ve been the canary in the coal mine. Our market is actually saturated. The criminal enterprises engaged in synthetic opioids are now trying to make markets in other places, including in Europe, including in Asia. And so more and more countries are now raising their voice and saying: We need action on this. We need cooperation on this. I don’t think China’s going to be immune to that. So I have some modest hope that we can find a way to elicit their cooperation.
HAASS: I just got a few and I want to open up to our members. Let me raise one other geography, which is the Middle East. Because again, you were in the kingdom recently. Lots of reports about Saudi interest in security assurances. Lots of talk about Saudi Arabia potentially joining the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations with Israel. Where does that stand? And could you see yourself inviting the crown prince to Washington, despite our historic differences and President Biden’s differences simply because it’s a necessary means to an end, which is a closer U.S.-Saudi relationship and a formal Saudi-Israeli relationship?
BLINKEN: So, Richard, I think when it comes to that relationship, where it’s going and how potential normalization fits in, start from the premise that we’ve had a decades-long relationship grounded in security, grounded in energy, and then in more recent years grounded in dealing with terrorism. But now we see all sorts of new potential that goes to the dynamic of regional integration in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia potentially in the middle of it, a de-escalation of conflict and crisis with one notable exception, Iran, and as well the possibility to partner on game-changing issues and challenges.
For example, with Saudi Arabia on everything from developing and meeting the incredible thirst around the world for quality infrastructure, to dealing with new communications networks going forward, including things like open radio access networks where we’re actually working with the Saudis. It’s a long way of saying that along with the foundational partnership that we’ve had, there are new horizons that are clear. And of course, we have a big stake. We came in with maybe the worst humanitarian situation in the world being in Yemen, working to end that war.
So there’s also a dynamic in place whereby both Saudi Arabia and Israel, of course, are interested in the prospect of normalization. It is incredibly challenging, hard, not something that can happen overnight. But it’s also a real prospect and one that we’re working on because, as you’ve alluded to, both the Saudis and Israelis are looking for us to play a particular role in that effort. We’re very much engaged in it. And, as I said, it’s a challenging road but it’s certainly one that’s possible.
HAASS: Don’t you have an added problem, though? Which is just as you’re trying to do this, and perhaps bring the Saudis closer to the Israelis, it can’t take place without a context—in this case, the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Which, I’ve been watching it for, you know, forty-plus years. And it seems to me not that far from blowing. You’re seeing now the considerable expansion of settlements, considerable expansion of violence, a real absence of centralized Palestinian authority, the most right-wing government we’ve seen in Israeli history. If we want to have a normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, it seems to me part of—associated with that has got to be a degree of calm with Israelis and Palestinians. It seems to me we’re on the verge of anything but that. Shouldn’t we be doing more, or couldn’t we be doing more to address this, to keep open—particularly to keep open the possibility to calm things and keep open a two-state possibility?
BLINKEN: Yeah. In short, I agree with you. And what we’ve—
HAASS: That’s no fun.
BLINKEN: I’m sorry. (Laughter.) We’ve told—we’ve told our friends and allies in Israel that if there’s a fire burning in their backyard, it’s going to be a lot tougher, if not impossible, to actually both deepen the existing agreements as well as to expand them to include potentially Saudi Arabia. And I actually had this conversation just yesterday with my Israeli counterpart. It’s a conversation I’ve had with the prime minister on a number of occasions.
It’s also, at least in our judgment as Israel’s closest friend and ally, profoundly not in Israel’s interest for this to happen. Both because of the added degree of difficulty that this presents for pursuing normalization agreements or deepening them, but also because of the practical consequences. Just to cite one example, if Israel were to find itself, either by intent or by accident, responsible for the West Bank with three million Palestinians and 500-plus-thousand settlers, what is that going to mean in terms of the allocation of resources, including security resources, that Israel otherwise needs to be concerned about when it comes to Gaza, when it comes to Lebanon, when it comes to Iran? It doesn’t really—it doesn’t really add up.
So on both of those dimensions—and then, of course, there is the question of the future for the Palestinian people, something that we care deeply about. And we continue to believe strongly that two states is the—is the way forward. As distant as that seems, it’s hugely important to at least keep a horizon of hope for people who don’t have a lot. And in the meantime, to at least try to better their lives day in, day out. We are working on this.
We’ve had—we’ve brought people together—Arabs, Israelis, Palestinians—in Aqaba, at Sharm el-Sheikh to try to find a way forward. To, in the first instance, deescalate some of these tensions, to have both sides refrain from taking actions that are simply going to add fuel to the fire. It’s an ongoing process. We’ve had some success, particularly during the holiday season, over Easter, Passover, Ramadan. Now, however, we’ve seen steps taken, including on settlements, that are moving in the opposite direction.
HAASS: Two quick last questions then I want to open it up. You mentioned Iran twice. Lots of reports about an informal arrangement out there being discussed putting some lid on Iranian nuclear capabilities in exchange for some degree of sanctions adjustment. What can you say about that?
BLINKEN: What I can say is this: We’ve believed from day one two things. We have a commitment that President Biden strongly adheres to, which is that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon. We also believe diplomacy is the most effective way to actually get that result—the most sustainable and the most effective. So we’ve pursued that path. We tried to see if we could get back to mutual compliance with the Iran nuclear agreement, the so-called JCPOA. And we made a very good faith effort, working closely with our European partners and actually, in this instance, working with China and Russia. And at the point at which that looked possible, Iran either couldn’t or wouldn’t do what was necessary to get back into compliance. And that goes back now many, many months. So there is no agreement in the offing, even as we’re—we continue to be willing to explore diplomatic paths.
And at the same time, we’ve been building up our deterrence. And we have been working closely with partners in the region to do just that, as well as continuing to take a whole variety of measures to push back against Iranian misbehavior in different areas. But there’s no—there’s no agreement in the offing. I think whether Iran chooses itself to take actions—or maybe better put, not to take actions that further escalate the tensions not only between us but with other countries, we’ll see by their—by their actions.
HAASS: Yeah, I’ll hold off the last question. OK, time for you all. Raise your hand. (Laughter). This is going to be now the longest meeting in the history of the Council, if we get to it. Raise your hand. We’ll get a microphone to you. Keep it short. Let us know who you are. I see in the next to last row. Yes, ma’am. Right there.
Q: Hi, Secretary Blinken. Thank you very much. My name is Sara Muñoz. I am the deputy world editor for the Wall Street Journal.
And I have two questions related to—
HAASS: One question.
Q: —wrongfully detained reporter Evan Gershkovich. Can the State Department confirm that they have requested formal consular access for Evan, and is it likely to be granted? And how will the recent events in Russia affect efforts of the U.S. to free those Americans wrongfully detained in Russia?
BLINKEN: Yeah. Thank you. From my perspective, I have no greater responsibility than to look out for the safety and wellbeing of Americans around the world, and notably Americans who are being arbitrarily detained—unjustly detained in some fashion. And Evan, of course, is front and center in that. So yes. We, of course, from day one, have sought consular access. We’ve had some initial access to him. That’s been denied more recently. It’s something we continue to look for virtually every day. At the same time, we are continuing to explore ways to bring him home. Paul Whelan as well, and many other Americans who are being detained in different parts of the world in an arbitrary fashion. We’ve brought a lot of Americans home over the last two and a half years, but more to be done. And Evan is front and center in our thinking.
In each of these instances, it’s not surprising that there’s usually an incredibly challenged relationship with the country in question. And maybe even one that’s directly antagonistic. That doesn’t stop us from working separately and independently to try to bring people home. And as you’ve seen, we’ve had some success with that even with countries where we have—where we’re really at odds. So I can tell you this: We will continue to do that. We’ll continue to work to bring Evan home. We’re not going to stop until we get him home.
HAASS: OK. Yes, sir. Jamie.
Q: Jamie Metzel, One Shared World. Hi, Tony.
BLINKEN: Hi, good to see you.
Q: Thank you. Nice to see you.
I really appreciated what you said about our world being at an inflection point. At earlier times in history—in 1648, 1945—we’ve been at inflection points like this, in those cases after huge crises. And we’ve had to think structurally about what a global operating system upgrade might look like. How are you thinking about upgrades, whether it’s to the U.N. or new institutions, to try to deal with the challenges we face?
BLINKEN: Jamie, thanks for the question. It’s very much what we’re about and what we’re focused on. And as I said, it really goes to a few things. First is really trying—we had to start first just reengaging, as well as trying to reenergize and rejuvenate some of the existing alliances and partnerships. And I think we’ve done a reasonable job at doing just that. And a lot of that is just rolling up your sleeves, showing up, being engaged, listening, as well as acting.
But I think one of the things we found is this—and again, no surprise to anyone in this room—institutions, alliances, arrangements that were made seventy-five years ago, fifty years ago, may not necessarily be fit for today’s purposes. And so along with trying to reorient, in some cases, the existing arrangements to deal with the challenges of this moment, we have tried to build new partnerships. And there, what we found—and something that you’ve done remarkable work on over the last year— is COVID is a pretty good example of that. As I said, I think we were a little slow off the mark in terms of our global responsibilities, but once we got going—including working through COVAX to make sure that we were getting vaccines to people around the world free of charge, no political strings attached—we were actually quite effective.
But even in doing that, we noticed that there were—that there were gaps. There were gaps on the last mile in terms of actually getting shots into arms. There were gaps in protecting health care workers who are on the frontlines. There were gaps in dealing with misinformation and disinformation that was being used against this global effort. There were gaps in getting other therapeutics to people in need. And this is, of course, particularly acute in Africa.
So we built a new coalition of countries that were either particularly interested in this, had particular resources that they could bring to bear, and we called it basically the GAP coalition. And this is not very much in the headlines, but we did it among foreign ministers because to have a real impact and a sustained impact—yes, of course, you need all of the expertise, health ministers, et cetera. But to make sure that there’s a real political drive and imprimatur on this, it’s useful to do it at that level, too. And we put this together, and it was actually quite successful, and we can go through all the different metrics, in actually filling the gaps.
We’re doing this across the board. I mentioned the synthetic opioid coalition that we’re going to put together and that will be announced in just a couple of weeks’ time. We’ve done this with food insecurity as well. And we also have been doing this in different ways with things that Richard knows well in the Indo-Pacific, with the Quad—with India, with Japan, with Australia, with the United States—to try to deliver specific public goods in ways that our countries together, I think, are uniquely placed to do. It actually started, as you know, with vaccines, but now it’s expanded out.
So it’s exactly this combination of revitalizing existing institutions, reforming them as necessary. The U.N. is one place where you may have heard the president speak to this at the last General Assembly. We’re really intent on trying to pursue reform in the Security Council, reform in the institution more broadly. The international financial institutions, multilateral development banks. There’s a major effort underway to make sure that they’re much more effectively addressing the needs in this moment. We started with the special drawing rights. I think there’s more that we can do. We need Congress for that.
We’re looking at how capital is allocated, and allocated in ways that, again, address things like climate change, which is the biggest demand signal, food insecurity. And we’re also looking at greater speed and efficacy in the way these institutions function. Janet Yellen and we are working on it very closely together. So I think it’s a combination of all of these things. It’s the existing institutions. It’s building new ones that are fit for purpose. And, as I said, it’s also finding new tools, including in the international system.
Last thing is—last thing is this: This is, in my mind, something that’s been very powerful because there really is a recognition—even with countries that have different systems, different political orientations—that there is a common interest, a shared interest in trying to tackle some of these problems. And there is a shared interest in actually establishing some basic rules, basic understandings, and trying to live by them. And we see that play out every single day.
HAASS: Let’s get a question from Zoom land.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Tomicah Tillemann.
Q: Hi, Secretary Blinken. This is Tomicah Tillemann. It’s great to see you and to have you with us.
You had touched a couple of times in your remarks on technology and the importance of technology in shaping the evolving world order. You’ve done a lot of good work at the State Department to build new infrastructure for dealing with that. What will it look like going forward, not only for the State Department but for public institutions generally that have historically struggled to adapt to rapid innovation in other fields?
BLINKEN: Tomicah, thank you. One of the things that I’ve learned the hard way in thirty years of government—I suspect, Richard, you had the same experience—is that governments, the foreign policy apparatus, to some extent the domestic apparatus is usually not great at understanding new technologies, adapting to them, figuring out what government’s role needs to be in shaping them and in regulating them. And in the foreign policy space most of us are not brought up in scientific technological disciplines. And that’s a deficit. One of the things that we’ve been trying to do, and have done I think with some success, is actually to build that into the DNA of the State Department.
And as I think you alluded to, we just stood up a new bureau that is focused on digital policy, on cyberspace, on emerging technology to make sure that we have the expertise in hand at the department, that we actually grow it within the department, and the department is seen as a place where there’s genuine knowledge, genuine expertise. And then we can effectively represent the United States in these windowless rooms around the world where so many of the decisions about how technology is going to be used are actually made. And that was done really with—in record time at record speed. And I’m feeling very bullish about the prospects for that.
We have worked very hard as well to strengthen our connections to the entire innovation, science, and technology enterprise that is at the heart of this country’s strength. And time doesn’t allow me to get into this, but we’ve done that in a lot of different ways to make sure that we’re connected and, to the best extent possible, we’re actually a little bit ahead of the curve in understanding what’s coming down the road, how that may affect our relationships with other countries, how that’s going to affect geopolitics, how that’s going to affect our ability to solve some of these big, transnational problems that we’ve been talking about.
Basically, we want a department that’s fit for purpose as well. And that purpose has changed. If you look at what really matters to people, of course, the bread-and-butter issues of war and peace, preventing conflict, making peace, doing the day-in, day-out work of relations between countries. That remains our bread and butter. But if we don’t have a department that’s able to act effectively and efficiently when it comes to technology, when it comes to global health, when it comes to climate, when it comes to food insecurity, when it comes to migration, then we’re not being responsive to the big challenges that are affecting people’s lives right now. That’s exactly the kind of department that we’re actually building as we speak, and I think we’ll be in a much better place to address these challenges going forward.
HAASS: Can you just build on that and say something about your policy towards technology externally in the sense of what is your thinking about—our approach ought to be to AI? Whether it is wise and feasible to constrain it? And when it comes to countries like China, is our—is our goal simply to deny them things that are directly useful for national security? Or are we actually trying to slow China’s growth?
BLINKEN: So on the—let me take the second part of the question first, because this was actually a lengthy part of the conversation that we just had in Beijing. From China’s perspective, no surprise to people here, is that our purpose is to contain them, to hold them down, to hold them back globally and economically. And the fact of the matter is, it’s not. And it’s also not in our interest to do that. China sees us as being engaged in decoupling. The argument that I made to our counterparts is that if you actually look at what’s happening and what’s happened, the facts belie that assertion.
Our trade with China last year reached the highest level ever. We had more foreign direct investment going to China last year than in any year since 2014. Yes, we have export controls. We have sanctions on individuals and Chinese entities—about a thousand or so all told. There are forty-eight million companies registered in China. So that’s hardly decoupling, if we’ve got very targeted restrictions on—I think it’s 0.0001 percent of the companies in China.
At the same time, it’s not in our interest to hold them back. We have done, I think, very well in recovering from COVID. Other countries are struggling more. We don’t want to be the only engine for growth in the world. We want to see a China that’s actually succeeding economically. It’s in our interest. But equally—and again, I shared this with our counterparts—how is it in our interest to allow them to get technology that they may turn around and use against us?
Whether it’s in building a very opaque nuclear weapons program and expanding it at a very rapid pace, developing hypersonic missiles, using AI potentially for repressive purposes? It’s not in our interest to do that. If they were in our shoes, they would do exactly the same thing. And so the very targeted, very narrowly defined controls that we’ve put in place are designed to prevent that. Now, it’s an ongoing conversation, but I think it’s hugely important.
When it comes to AI more broadly, obviously that’s the subject of the day, particularly when it comes to generative AI. We’re proceeding in a very deliberate way. There has been a very productive dialogue, conversation going on between the administration, centered at the White House, and the four companies that basically have developed the foundational platforms for generative AI. And we expect that to lead to a place where there’s an understanding, a voluntary understanding, on what some of the guidelines and guardrails will be for the development of generative AI.
The challenge becomes this: One, even if the frontier or foundational platforms agree to this, to the extent that this technology proliferates out beyond them you have to find ways to get adherence to these guidelines and to these norms. So that’s a challenge. And that’s just notionally within the United States. Internationally, it’s a whole other challenge. I think, Richard, you’re seeing that country after country is recognizing two things. It’s recognizing the extraordinary potential for good of this and a desire to channel the technology to good things. You can see the applications in education, in health, in food security, you name it. But of course also the profound risk.
So finding ways both collaboratively and voluntarily to de-risk, to focus in, for example, on high-risk applications and to determine what the guardrails will be on that—that’s something that we’re very much engaged in. We started this conversation with the European Union. The EU itself has put out some initial legislation on this. But we’re very much engaged with them through the—something called the Trade and Technology Council to try to see what we can do. But I think this has to be a broader conversation. I think it’s something that China’s going to be interested in, because it also sees the profound challenges that AI may pose for it.
HAASS: Time for one more question. I know I’m going to alienate a lot of people. You can take it out on my successor. (Laughter.) I think that’s the only—Ed.
Q: Ed Cox, Committee for Economic Development.
I’d like to get back to where Richard started with respect to Russia and China. Between the parties, the relations are declared to be very solid now, but traditionally it has been not only ambiguous but antagonistic. Where do you expect that relationship to evolve? And how do you—how could the administration impact it?
BLINKEN: So I think we’ve seen in real time, including this past weekend, some of the tensions that are inherent in that relationship. Which I think we would see, in some ways, as a marriage of convenience but also, to some extent, as a marriage of conviction. The conviction being that the world that we seek to shape is not the same one that, in very different ways and for different reasons, they seek to shape. And so there’s some convenience, but also conviction in working together.
But I think we see some of the profound tensions and strains that go to that. China has been trying to get a balancing act right where on the one hand it’s been supportive of Russia in the international system and through this aggression against Ukraine. It’s done some of its bidding diplomatically, it’s tried to advance its narrative, et cetera. At the same time, it tries to present itself as neutral and as a force for peace and for ending the conflict. And that strain is increasingly apparent.
We had some interesting conversations about this when I was in China last week—or, two weeks ago. And my hope would be that China actually could play—if we get to a moment where diplomacy has realistic prospects for achieving something and we get to a negotiation—where it actually could play a constructive role, if only because it has a certain amount of influence on Russia and that may be useful when we get there.
But you’ve seen China, again, try to advance the proposition that it’s trying to itself advance peace. It sent an envoy around. Some of the principles that China put forward in its own plans are good. We support them. We agree, starting with territorial integrity and sovereignty, which is plank one in their—in their plan. So I think it’s in our interest, first of all, to see if we can’t encourage them to be a more positive actor in bringing this aggression to a close, while at the same time making sure that they don’t do things that would only add fuel to the fire. For example, the provision of lethal weaponry to Russia for use in Ukraine, something that they have told us they have not done and will not do. But not only us, they’ve told that to many other countries. It’s something we watch very closely and something that I took up when I was there.
HAASS: We’re going to end there on a rare upbeat note. (Laughter.) Uncharacteristic, not a precedent, I can assure you. I want to, by the way, just to commend while we’re here the new task force on U.S. policy towards China and Taiwan on CFR.org. It’s a really valuable, thoughtful piece of work. If you haven’t looked at it, you should.
I want to thank the secretary of state for two things. One—actually, three things. I want to thank him for being here today, giving us an hour. I want to thank him for being a dues-paying member of the Council on Foreign Relations. (Laughter.) And I want to thank him—
BLINKEN: Where’s the discount? (Laughter.)
HAASS: And I want to thank him for a career in public service. It really is service. It ain’t easy—the travel, the hours. You have a young family. You sacrifice a lot. I just want to thank you for all you do.
BLINKEN: Thank you, Richard. (Applause.)