Deputy Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State
James Clarke Chace Professor in Foreign Affairs and Humanities, Bard College
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken joins Bard’s Walter Russell Mead to discuss multilateral diplomacy and U.S. global leadership. Blinken discusses the benefits of an open-facing United States and how acting multilaterally with other countries has made the country’s leadership more effective. He also shares opinions on how the country should strengthen the liberal international order it built over the decades and adapt it to new global realities.
MEAD: Welcome, everyone. Good to see you all here. We are here to the meeting with Antony Blinken, deputy secretary of state, United States Department of State. We had scheduled a meeting a little early to accommodate his schedule, and we will now be extending the meeting. A little bit counter to usual Council practice we may run a little late. So I’m just warning you that now.
Deputy Secretary, would you come up and give your remarks?
BLINKEN: Thank you. Well, thank you all very, very much. And my apologies for being late. I think my watch may be set to Secretary Kerry’s, and it’s never clear what time zone he’s in. (Laughter.) So that may explain it. And this really is a momentous day. And I know you’re all gathered here in tremendous anticipation because, of course, the new iPhone will be coming out this afternoon. (Laughter.) But in advance of that, it is a great pleasure to be at what is the CFR mothership. We have a satellite in Washington, D.C., but it’s wonderful to be here at CFR central.
Walter, thank you so much for presiding over the event today. But more important, thank you for your extraordinarily thoughtful critiques that have enriched our foreign policy debates, and that we take very, very seriously. And I’m especially and deeply grateful to my good friend—and, you know, in Washington we say good friend all the time, this time I mean it—Richard Haass, who has been a wonderful friend, a wonderful counselor, and has done extraordinary things leading this community. I have to say too that it’s particularly nice to have an excuse for a brief family reunion, because my parents are here, Donald and Vera Blinken, and so many friends from New York.
We are in the midst of one of the most significant national debates that we’ve had in decades over United States foreign policy, although you might not recognize it from the tenor of the campaign. But it’s there and it’s real. And it doesn’t pit right against left, Democrat against Republican, liberal against conservative. Rather, it’s an argument between those who would erect walls and those who would build bridges. In the shadow of shared vulnerabilities exposed by the dizzying pace of global change, some of our fellow citizens question the merits of facing outward, of being open to the world. They worry that terrorists are sneaking into our country as refugees, immigrants slipping across our borders to radically alter our identity. They’ve seen their real wages stagnate, factory jobs disappear. They wonder whether U.S. global leadership has benefitted others at their expense. What value is there in a system that they feel has left them behind?
The result is a renewed blend of isolationism and unilateralism that argues that our engagement in the world costs us too much, achieves too little, encourages free riders, embroils us in other people’s problems, and distracts us from investing in our own communities. In other words, they suggest that it’s time for America to come home or go it alone. This debate—this argument has its roots in legitimate concerns that we have to better acknowledge and more effectively address together, because after all you can’t really call it progress if too many of our fellow citizens don’t believe that they’re sharing in it.
But this argument that we’re better off pulling up the drawbridge is fundamentally flawed. It underestimates the risks of turning inward, while overstating the costs and downplaying the benefits of facing outward. It’s harmful to the health, strength, security, and prosperity of our nation. And those of us in the foreign policy community have to do a better job explaining why. Now, I know that here at CFR, for the most part, I am preaching to the choir. But here’s the truth, today’s debate is evidence that our voices are not as clear, as compelling, as compassionate as they should be to convince our fellow citizens. And I think it’s a responsibility that we share, if we believe in an open world and an open-facing America, to actually try to meet that challenge together.
You know, we know, that we don’t work with other countries as a luxury or as charity. The problems we face today are notoriously resistant to unilateral solutions. We cannot build a wall tall enough to stop the oceans from rising or the planet from warming. We can’t bolt the gate tight enough to stop the spread of disease or break the allure of violent extremism. If we step back from the global stage, Americans of all stripes will be worse off. Our companies would make less money. After all, 90 percent of the global market, even more, is beyond our shores. And Americans would have fewer jobs, absent our leadership to promote a global business environment favorable to our brands, our products, and our high standards.
Our soldiers would actually be dragged into more costly and unintended wars absent our leadership to build alliances that share the burdens, however imperfectly, of security and increase the capacity of others to prevent small crises from turning into big ones. And our citizens would be left unacceptably vulnerable absent international cooperation to try to stop threats—to spot them and stop them before they actually reach our shores. Our national interest demands global engagement.
Now, you all know that this is not a lesson that we learned suddenly. Seventy-one years ago we faced, after World War II, a fundamental choice: As the world’s rising global power, how would we use that power and our new place of preeminence? We could choose to come home and turn our backs on a broken world. We could take advantage of the moment to impose our will on others as victors of war have done for centuries. Or we could channel our power through a system of rules, principles, norms, international institutions, that gave everyone a stake in the running of world affairs.
On one level, embedding our country in a broader system that bound us to the same rules and restraints as others seemed counter-intuitive, a check on our own power. But as I think most of you know, it proved remarkably wise. It took away the incentive for other countries to band together, to block our eyes, as happened throughout history when one nation sought to rise above others. And rather than constraining us, the rules-based international order has legitimated, preserved, and indeed amplified our power over time.
Of course, this system didn’t eliminate all turmoil, all conflicts, all inequity. It did not and could never insulate societies fully from the pain of social and economic change. But with American leadership that married wisdom to strength, it got the big picture right—averting new global cataclysms, ending the Cold War peacefully, creating the space and stability for countries to prosper. This is a narrative that most of us in this room, in one way or another, have lived and grown up with. But it is not a narrative that’s familiar, or as familiar certainly, to a young generation looking at America’s place in the world with fresh eyes. But I think it bears repeating.
President Obama pledged to carry this legacy forward with what he called a new era of engagement. Entering the Oval Office at a time when the United States was a bit more isolated on the world stage, he knew the risks of ignoring our allies and stiff-arming potential partners. He recognized that the international system is not a threat to our interests, but rather a logical, indispensable extension of those interests. He saw American leadership in a diverse array of multilateral forums was essential to shaping this wider system to our advantage.
And so we actually renewed our leadership at the United Nations, worked at the Security Council to advance nuclear negotiations with Iran, to remove and destroy Syria’s declared strategic chemical weapons capacity. We rejoined the Human Rights Council, brought attention to some of the world’s worst human rights violators, passed the first resolution on LGBTI rights in a multilateral body. We not only embraced the Millennium Development Goals that we had once shunned, we helped reach agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals to end extreme poverty.
We bolstered the capacity of U.N. peacekeeping operations by mobilizing pledges for an additional 50,000 troops from countries around the world. We reinvigorated our transatlantic partnerships by deepening our engagement with the European Union, enhancing NATO’s military capabilities to address regional and global challenges, reinforcing the OSCE’s expanded role in working for a Europe whole, free, and at peace. We strengthened our relationships with Asia’s key institutions, joining the East Asia Summit, sending our first dedicated ambassador to ASEAN, hosting the first U.S.-ASEAN summit here in the United States, and hosting APEC back in 2011.
In our own hemisphere, we revitalized the Summit of the Americas by updating our Cuba policy that had isolated us in this hemisphere. And we worked with new leadership at the Organization of American States to preserve that institution’s role in defending democracy where it is threatened.
Now, there are those who believe that our nation’s overwhelming military and economic superiority means we should and could operate alone, that corralling others at a summit, working through a system, is much more trouble than it’s worth. But in the absence of U.S. leadership, these institutions don’t simply disappear. They take on a profoundly unhelpful shape, as the League of Nations did in the 1930s. By turning inward, we lose our ability to advance positive developments. We forfeit one of our most powerful tools to check negative ones.
We know that there is a very clear tactical as well as strategic and political value in not having to act alone. In so many of these institutions, working with others, we build a foundation of trust, a greater alignment of interest, habits of cooperation, and greater legitimacy that better enables us to mobilize others against common threats and seizing common opportunities. By taking a seat at the table, we can drive the conversation and help shape the results.
When a spiraling economic crisis threatened the world eight years ago, we worked with the G-20 to forge an international response that helped bring the global economy back from the brink and set the stage for the longest streak of job growth ever in the United States. Our leadership, American leadership, our willingness to work with our partners, produced the massive coordinated fiscal package needed to help restore confidence, save families, companies, and countries hardest hit by the crisis. That’s exactly the kind of collective action that we continue to need if we’re going to generate sustained income gains for middle class households.
When we saw Iran’s nuclear program speeding ahead, while the window for preventive action was closing, we worked in lockstep with a diverse group of nations over several years to peacefully negotiate the toughest nonproliferation arrangement, and most rigorous verification system ever devised. Without our partners, we could never have built or maintained a sanctions regime powerful enough to help bring Iran to the negotiating table or knitted together an understanding strong enough to verifiably and comprehensively ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is, and will remain, exclusively for peaceful purposes.
When Daesh’s campaign of terror emerged in ungoverned spaces in Syria and Iraq, we build a coalition of more than 65 countries to bring every political, diplomatic, economic, and military tool to bear against this threat, undermining the very foundation of Daesh’s self-declared caliphate, and revealing its cause for the savage lunacy that it is. When Russia violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of an independent democratic Ukraine, we turned to the European Union and the G-7, core groups of the world’s great democracies, to design and implement our response. Now, we could have simply imposed sanctions and bailed out Ukraine by ourselves, to much less effect at far greater cost. Instead, we rallied others, which also helped ensure that sanctions didn’t wind up hurting American companies or European companies instead of their intended Russian targets.
In each of these instances, and so many more, acting multilaterally, acting with others, has made American leadership more effective. In little over a week’s time, just 25 blocks from here, the United Nations will gather in its annual General Assembly—to the great pleasure, I know, of so many inhabitants of Manhattan. (Laughter.) Every day the bulk of our global engagement happens at the U.N., the poster child for multilateralism. From its earliest moments, the U.N. has been a source of discomfort for some in the United States. Lately, its high-profile failures and endemic shortcomings have contributed to a perception that we may be better off without it than we are with it.
Now, anyone who’s engaged with the U.N. knows it can be an incredibly slow and frustrating place. And of course, we don’t get our way every time. But there remains no substitute for the work the U.N. does, the legitimacy it brings, the reach it allows. We rely every single day on a network of institutions under the U.N. umbrella to protect us from disease, to prevent conflict, to deliver life-saving aid, to facilitate trade, to defend human rights, to bring war criminals to justice, to maintain little-known standards that ensure, for example, that mail is delivered across borders, that cellphones work, that patents are respected, that airplanes can fly safely.
Tarnish and all, the U.N. remains the gold standard of global action. And when it is mobilized effectively, the results can actually be historic. Just four days ago the U.S. and China formally entered into the Paris climate agreement. There was a time not so long ago when this seemed impossible, when no one believed that the two largest economies and the two largest carbon emitters would join forces after decades at loggerheads. But years of painstaking and painful U.N. negotiations—and leadership, above all, by President Obama, by Secretary Clinton, and Secretary Kerry—helped produce an agreement among nearly 200 countries and our best shot yet at saving the planet.
Part of our challenge is it’s hard to help some of our fellow citizens—(inaudible)—the deficits of this multilateral rules-and-norms-based system. It would mean, though, building ad hoc arrangements every single time we wanted to act, an extraordinary diplomatic lift that would distract us from the real challenges at hand. It would mean a world where goods are fewer and more expensive, businesses move slower, the appetite for risk is lower, where travel is harder, educational exchange is tougher, international research collaboration near-impossible. It would mean anarchy on the high seas, with pirates, drug traffickers, smugglers, sanction violators sailing freely, and a global power vacuum filled by those whose values don’t look anything like ours.
So now is not the time to abandon that system—the liberal international order that we have spent so much blood and treasure to build over these last seven decades. Now is the time to strengthen it, to adapt it to new realities.
Even as the United Nations has taken on more and more responsibility, it’s struggled to keep pace as major new economies have emerged looking for a platform commensurate to their growing importance on the world stage. Today the U.N. faces challenges its founders could scarcely have even imagined, from cyberterrorists to violent extremists. And its humanitarian system is under historic strain, buffeted by protracted emergencies and extreme natural disasters.
To take just one example—and the president will be focusing on this in a couple of weeks at the refugee summit on the margins of the General Assembly—we now have around the world the largest single wave of human displacement since World War II. If every person on the planet displaced by conflict was put into one country, it would be the 24th-largest country on Earth—bigger than Spain, bigger than South Korea. And that’s just one problem that the U.N. is at the heart of grappling with.
So I would leave you with the thought that our challenge today is to bear down on adapting the international system to suit a young century while also ensuring that its foundation—its rules, its norms, its principles—remain intact and remain strong. And that work does start at the United Nations, where we will soon have an opportunity to select the next secretary-general. That person must have a strong diplomatic and negotiating background and experience, proven management and leadership skills, a demonstrated commitment to transparency and accountability, and an unflinching adherence to the U.N.’s principles. The U.N., especially now, needs a strong leader with a vision for and commitment to fundamental reforms, to a culture of accountability so that failures are addressed immediately, effectively, transparently. And it needs a moral leader with the resolve to actually speak for the downtrodden, to call our bad actors, to defend the protection of civilians, to restructure the global humanitarian architecture, putting the needs of the world’s most vulnerable people front and center.
In this time, that is more fluid and fraught with complexity than ever before, it’s not enough to make little tweaks around the margins or the edges of the existing system. We have to think hard about how we redefine multilateral engagement for the times we’re living. And I believe we need to stand up and boldly defend its value, as well as address its failures, making it real and relevant in the lives of our fellow citizens, responsive to their legitimate concerns.
This work of reform doesn’t come with banners. It doesn’t come with parades. But it actually helps real people living real lives, here and around the world see that the U.N. is worth fighting for. It ensures that our collective action better upholds our own promises. And it will help us shape and adapt an international system that actually lives up to the vision of those who first built it: a global project that remains now, as it did then, indispensable to the health, the strength, the security, the prosperity of every nation, and especially the United States.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
MEAD: Well, thanks. That was a really comprehensive introduction. And I just want to say, as somebody who’s sometimes been thought of as a little critical about American foreign policy, that I think one of the key things about whether you’re going to criticize or support an administration or a foreign policy if you’ve got to remember these things are not easy. It’s not as if there was some simple little alternative that only an idiot wouldn’t see. The world that we live in is difficult to do well, and I think—I think we all need to start by acknowledging that.
BLINKEN: I was waiting for the (turning ?).
MEAD: (Laughs.) No, no. I mean, it was interesting to me that there were sort of two worlds in your—in your talk. One was a world of fantastic multilateral organizations, the greatest thing the world has ever seen, under eight years of absolutely brilliant diplomacy—seven-and-a-half. And then the other was the most displaced civilians since World War II, widespread discontent with the whole system in the United States. I think you could have mentioned that in France, in Germany, all over the world the discontent at this fantastic system so ably led has been growing. How do we reconcile those two?
BLINKEN: I’d say two things.
First, I think we’re living a moment of extraordinary paradox. As the president has said a number of times, if without knowing where you would be born in the world, what your race would be, what your sex or sexual orientation would be, what your politics would be, if you didn’t know any of those things and you had to choose a time in which to be born, you would choose today over any other period in human history. Because when you look at the global suite, when you look at the planet as a whole, it is healthier, it is wealthier, it is wiser, it’s more tolerant than it has ever been in the course of human history. And so part of that—not all of that, but part of that I think is due to the system that we put in place after the war to try and create an environment in which progress could actually be made more efficiently, more effectively. That’s one side.
The other side is that so many of our fellow citizens and, you’re exactly right, take any of our partners and friends in Europe, or for that matter virtually anyplace else in the world, feel disconnected from this reality. They felt left behind, ignored, not part of the deal. And I think that’s happening for two reasons.
One, there’s a reality to the fact that folks are left behind. We need to more effectively address that.
But there’s also something about this moment that we’re living. The onslaught of information has I think radically changed the way we in government operate and the way most of our fellow citizens respond to what’s going on around the world. Having this intravenous feed that virtually every citizen now enjoys—and I use the word “enjoy” advisedly—creates a sense of confusion and chaos just as much as it illuminates. I think most of us brought up in a liberal tradition were brought up to believe that more information is a good thing. And if you read John Stuart Mill, as everyone does in high school or college, you think it’s great: we’re going to have a competition of ideas, and the best ideas will win out. And fundamentally, I still believe that that’s true. But in the making it’s really painful.
And right now something that happens on one side of the planet, a problem that emerges, is instantaneously on your iPhone, on your TV, you name it. And this feeds, I think, this growing sense of disconnect, of discomfort, of confusion. Governments have a tougher time clarifying it.
When I started in government almost 25 years ago in my case, at the beginning of the Clinton administration, think about this. At the White House every evening, everyone stopped what they were doing and at 6:30 turned on the national network news—CBS, NBC, ABC. The only other collective action was to get up in the morning, open your front door, and pick up a hardcopy of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal. Those things don’t really happen anymore. A president, President Reagan—it started—it was starting to erode by the time President Clinton arrived—could actually dominate the media space. That doesn’t happen anymore, either. And in particular, Walter, I think the most pernicious thing, in my judgment, is, because of the immediacy of information, there is an extraordinary pressure on people in government to react, to respond. And if a problem is emerging at 6:00 a.m. on “Morning Joe” and it hasn’t been fixed by 9:00, you’re a failure.
I believe, having watched him up close for the last seven-and-a-half years, that one of President Obama’s great strengths is that he sees his role and responsibility as being a circuit breaker—to be the person who says, as president, wait, let’s look at this, let’s understand it, let’s study it, let’s devise a response. And you pay a short-term political cost for that, because again, if you’re not seen as responding immediately, aggressively, actively, somehow you’re not leading, you’re not engaged. I think this time demands exactly what he has been doing, which is to actually try and take a step back and understand the huge complexities that you referred to, how these things fit together, and what the best answer is.
MEAD: Well, that still doesn’t get us to, then, why things are in such a mess. You know, with all of this deliberation and so on, why do we have more displaced people than we have since World War II, in Syria for example?
BLINKEN: Well, Syria is obviously one of the big drivers of this displacement. Not the only one. In fact, one of the things we lose sight of is that, as horrific as the situation in Syria is, pushing people out to the neighboring states first and foremost—Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan—then pushing them further to Europe, pushing some of them even here to the United States, there is a refugee crisis of one kind or another on virtually every continent. It is a global problem. And there are obviously a wide array of answers as to why this is happening in given places, and of course in Syria it’s the civil war. And the main answer to that, of course, is end the civil war.
But in the meantime, even as we try to do that, we need to more effectively—and this refugee summit that the president will be hosting in a few weeks is aimed at helping the frontline states—Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan—be able to do more so that kids can go to school who are refugees, and adults can actually work legally. It’s designed to get more money into the humanitarian system, which is overwhelmed and overburdened—that’s part of the problem. It’s designed to get countries to do more to resettle refugees themselves, including the United States. So there’s obviously a lot of work to be done.
MEAD: Well, let’s kind of pull back a little historically, because I noticed you talked about after World War I and after World War II we had these debates. To me, it’s always interesting that after World War II, actually, the United States first decided we’re going to wash our hands of everything. We demobilized. We were coming home. And it was really only when Stalin sort of began to move forward in Eastern Europe that Truman was able to kind of painfully rally the country there.
Interestingly, after 1990, we didn’t have that debate. You know, we didn’t—Cold War was over, what are we going to do? We’re going to build a new world order. We’re going to extend the West to the East. I’m not sure that the American people bought into that. I buy into that, by the way, but I’m not sure that—maybe the lack of that public debate. And I think the way—the way that people like us at CFR and so on in both parties handled that was to say, look, don’t worry, people, it’s going to be cheap and it’s going to be easy. Now that the Soviet Union is gone, it’s not going to cost a lot of money, there’s not going to be a lot of risk of war; America is going to be able to put a lot less into the international system but take a lot more out in terms of human rights and so on and so forth. I’m not sure a lot of people ever really believed that. And now what they’re doing, one gets the feeling that people are looking at this world that is so very unlike the world that George H.W. Bush or Bill Clinton suggested we were headed into. Where’s that “end of history” thing gone? And when—and so there’s a tremendous skepticism, and we’re sort of having the debate now that we would have had in 1990. Does that tally with what you see?
BLINKEN: Yeah, actually, I agree with that. And I think part of what we’re seeing is the basic organizing principle, the nation-state, is under challenge in ways that it’s never been before—from below, from above, from the side. We have all sorts of non-state actors, whether it is the CEO of a major corporation, the mayor of a megacity, an NGO, a super-empowered individual for good or for bad, in different ways challenging the state. We have countries, particular, for example, in the Middle East, that have been unable to effectively deliver for their citizens, who are under challenge, old orders fading away, vacuums that tend to be filled by more extreme forces, not more moderate ones. And all of this is coming to a head. And again, it’s driven in many ways more quickly by technology, by information. And again, that feeds into the sense of chaos, the sense of confusion. And it feeds into questioning whether the basic premises, the basic organization that we agreed on—you’re exactly right, when Truman really came into the game—and then that we renewed after the Cold War is the right thing.
MEAD: But you know, I look at—just take the Middle East for example—please, I might say—(laughter)—
BLINKEN: We think the same thing.
MEAD: But, you know, you look at the Middle East. And this is probably going to offend everyone in the audience, but at different moments in this statement. It looks to me as if at root the George W. Bush administration and the Barack Obama administration shared a set of wrong beliefs about, in particular, how close the Middle East was to democracy. And so both administrations, to a certain degree, bet the farm on a quick, relatively for the U.S. painless, emergence of a new, stable democratic order. Looking at the situation, it looks like those calculations were wildly out, to say the least.
Is there some—and if this democratic project of liberal society and extension, for whatever set of reasons, isn’t working in the Middle East, is it going to work in Russia? Is it going to work in China? I think a—I think we have a sense where the public opinion is beginning to wonder whether the liberal internationalists understand the way the world actually works, because there have been these high-profile errors. How would you—
BLINKEN: I think that’s a fair critique. One of the things that we discovered, particularly in the Middle East, is when you had of one variety or another an authoritarian or autocratic regime, it spent a lot of time trying to make sure that nothing could challenge it, particularly from a moderate camp. And of course, the result was that when the regimes fell away in one way or another, the most organized groups were actually the most extreme groups that had been organizing in mosques under the—under the spotlight. And countries had not allowed any kind of moderate alternative actually gain—take root and experience and gain the ability, the capacity, to govern. And so these vacuums that have emerged have been filled by more extreme versions.
Libya’s a great example of this. Gadhafi spent a lot of time making sure that there could be no opposition to his government. And when he was gone, the government that came in had absolutely no experience or capacity to actually govern. This is one of the difficult problems.
MEAD: Right. I’m not sure why that was so hard to predict—(laughter)—given that we had just had a similar experience in Iraq. I mean, this is where it seems to me that we’ve got these sort of shared—these are elements of American political culture, rather than partisan, you know, leanings of one side or the other.
BLINKEN: So I’d say—so I’d say two things. First, it also takes—even as we believe in American exceptionalism, it takes also a certain amount of hubris and lack of humility to believe that people in every other part of the planet are not capable of developing the same capacities, and are not driven at heart by some of the same instincts and some of the same values. But if you’re starting from way back under a huge deficit, or in the case of Iraq decades of dictatorship, war, or occupation, it’s going to take a lot of time.
We came about this—and we came to this with, I think, a different approach. There’s an argument that we hear frequently that somehow the United States is less engaged, that we’re not leading. I believe from my own vantage point at the State Department that we’re more engaged in more ways in more places than we’ve ever been before. The debate really is about the nature of our engagement. And for some, if engagement is not spelled out as a large-scale military intervention that may be open-ended, that somehow you’re actually not engaged, you’re not leading.
We’ve rejected that premise. And we found out that it is incredibly difficult, but I still believe it’s the right way to work on trying to develop and build the capacity of others, of partners, to actually govern, to build institutions. And over time, that’s the only sustainable way to get to a good result. But there’s something else that I think is profoundly true, and there’s a real deficit that we’re seeing in many places. In each of these areas, our military can go in and do the job extraordinarily well. It will take on and defeat any enemy and do it quickly and effectively.
But then, a question. Then what? Either we’re left holding the bag and we’re there for years and even decades at tremendous cost, at tremendous turmoil. And what was a liberation turns in the minds of the country in question into an occupation and rebounds back against us. Or we can try to do the hard work of building that local capacity, but also trying to find out if there’s a sustainable political solution or settlement, because absent that none of the work of the military is actually going to last. And that has been one of the things that’s bedeviled us in Iraq, the absence of a sustainable political accommodation.
And by the way, we will in short order defeat Daesh and its so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria. But that’s only the beginning of the problem. If we’re not able to help Iraqis and ultimately Syrians develop some kind of reasonable political accommodation, the conditions within which another Daesh could arise will remain.
MEAD: All right. Well, listen, I’ve had my opportunity. I wonder if there are any questions from the audience. I should remind everyone this meeting is on the record.
BLINKEN: Glad you said that now.
MEAD: Yes. (Laughter.) Well, I wanted to get you—you know, draw you out a little bit first.
Q: Frank Wisner with the law firm of Squire Patton Boggs.
Mr. Secretary, thank you for a message today that I think virtually everybody in this room would agree with. The liberal order of the world is very much tested. But I’m going to ask you if you could bring it down to a practical issue, and that’s the question of Syria. We are looking at a bewildering array of events, particularly in northern Syria. Could you give us some context within which we can understand what our strategy is at the moment? What are we trying to accomplish? How are we trying to move the parties to the Syrian problem, to what end? Where do our efforts diplomatically stand? What can we look forward to in the next months?
BLINKEN: Frank, thank you for the softball question. It’s very much appreciated. (Laughter.)
Step back for one second. We have two challenges that we face in Syria and Iraq. We have the problem that we just talked about of dealing with Daesh. And quite frankly, that is first and foremost on our minds because that represents the most immediate significant threat to our interests, to our citizens, to our country. But in parallel, we’re dealing with what has become a civil war in Syria. And we have, in my judgement, a moral obligation to do whatever we can to arrest it. We have a practical and interest-based obligation because of all of the fallout from that civil war, including the refugee crisis that we were talking about a little while ago. And we have an interest because the efforts we’re making against Daesh ultimately I don’t think will succeed in totality until we also deal with the civil war in Syria, because as long as that remains it will remain a vacuum and a magnet for extremists coming in to fight Assad and joining up with Daesh or joining up with other groups, like Nusra.
So the big question is, how do these things end? Because it is important to be informed as best we can by history. And if you go back and look, as you know, typically they ended one of three ways: One side wins. That’s not likely to happen any time soon in Syria, because there are too many outside patrons willing to put enough in to prevent each side from losing. So we’re in a situation, I believe, where neither side can win, although they can avoid losing for some time, which means it’s likely to go on. Second, the other way these things end, is that parties basically exhaust themselves. But here’s the problem, if you go back and look at civil wars over the last 50 years, that exhaustion process typically takes 10 years. And we’re in year six of Syria’s civil war. It takes even longer when you have a fragmented series of actors, a multiplicity of actors with different interests. And unfortunately, Syria is truly, unfortunately, the paradigm of that kind of situation.
The third way it ends is if there’s some kind of outside intervention. And it can be a military intervention or it can be a political intervention. A military intervention, there are enough actors in play who are—who have been working on the edges of that trying to advance their interests through proxies. But no one is prepared to take the steps necessary to intervene so decisively militarily that victory will be produced. Russia is not going to do that—and I’ll come back to that in a second—as much as it’s done. We’re not going to do that, because we would be inheriting something that would be, I think, a huge burden on us. It would actually likely in the short term make the problem worse. By the way, most of these outside interventions in civil wars actually add fuel to the fire and make them worse. They don’t make them better.
And then finally, there is a political intervention, an imposition by the larger outside patrons, of some kind of settlement. And as improbable, as difficult, as challenging as that is, that remains, in our judgement, the most likely course of action to try to end the civil war, which is why we have been looking to see if we can work with Russia, which, with Iran, is the principal outside patron, obviously, of the regime. Now, you might say, why would Russia go for this? And I think the answer is this: One, they too recognize that as much as they’re doing in trying to prop up the regime, they can’t make Assad win. They can only at best prevent him from losing. And as a result, they’ll be left defending Assad in a rump state, smaller and smaller, controlling less and less of Syria, and constantly under siege. And meanwhile, if the conflict goes on and they’re defending Assad, the outside patrons supporting various groups in the opposition, extreme or moderate, will flow more and more weapons into Syria of greater and greater lethality, and more and more Russians will die and suffer as a consequence.
At the same time, the straddle that Russia is doing—trying at the one hand to make nice with the Sunni Arab world and at the same time support Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran—that straddle can’t last. It will alienate Sunni Muslims, it risks alienating the Muslim population in Russia—roughly 15 percent, almost all of which is Sunni. And of course, President Putin made his bones initially in quashing that very group in Dagestan, and Chechnya, et cetera. And of course, you have Central Asia, the Caucasus, et cetera. So we believe that Russia does have an interest in helping achieve some kind of political transition. The challenge, of course, is that Russia is trying constantly to negotiate from the greatest position of strength, and to make sure that before it cuts a deal it’s gotten as much as it can. And that’s the moment I think we’re at now. But, listen, absent some kind of imposition and effect of a settlement by the international community, the recipe is for this to go on, and to go on.
One final thing, one of other reasons this is so complicated and so hard to solve is that every actor involved has a different priority. For Turkey, it’s actually the Kurds. And to go to what you started with, their action in northern Syria was supposedly directed to dealing with ISIL coming across their border. That was a part of it, but mostly it was about preventing the Kurds in northern Syria from joining their cantons and having a continuous space in northern Syria, and the makings, perhaps, of a state. For Russia, it’s about keeping their foothold in the Middle East, which they’ve had through Syria and which was at risk. For Iran, it’s preserving the regime and space and supplies for Hezbollah. For Saudi Arabia, it’s probably about checking Iran. For us, as I said, it’s about Daesh and ISIL more than it’s about anything else.
So when you have so many of the outside players with different priorities, getting everyone on the same page is incredibly complicated. But again, I come back to the proposition that at the end of the day we all have an interest in ending this. No one wants to be left holding the bag. And the only way to do that is to move forward on this political accommodation. It starts with the cessation of hostilities. We had one briefly. It actually worked for a few weeks back in February and March. We got more humanitarian assistance in. We got into a million people that hadn’t received it. John Kerry is working eight days a week to get back to that. Now, people criticize and say, oh, he’s running after the Russians. When you’re trying to end a civil war, you take every conceivable step to do it. And I have great admiration for the work that he’s been doing to see if we can get to a better place.
MEAD: Let me just push that a little farther, and say: Isn’t one of Russia’s goals, though, to diminish U.S. prestige and do whatever it—so that—you know, the fact that we’re hunting for a solution, simply by withholding one, Russia to some degree is achieving a goal? Does that figure into your calculation?
BLINKEN: Sure. No doubt. No doubt. But think too about Russia strategically right now. You’re exactly right, Walter, that I think that is one of their goals and objectives, and not just in Syria, in Europe, and maybe other places. But my sense is that President Putin can act very decisively and very tactically and, indeed, very effectively. But strategically, again, in Syria there is a real risk that if Russia overplays its hand it will be left holding a very heavy and unattractive bag. And the specter of Afghanistan is not far from people’s minds.
In Europe, Ukraine—Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, its attempted annexation of Crimea, its efforts—continuing efforts in the Donbas to support the separatists, they may look strong and they may look decisive, but I think what Mr. Putin has done is actually precipitate much of which he’s tried to prevent. Ukraine—the vast bulk of Ukraine is gone to Russian influence for a generation or more. They’re detested in much of Ukraine. NATO, which Putin tries to keep at bay—and this is relative—is more energized than it’s been in recent memory, largely driven by concerns about Mr. Putin. Europeans are more serious about energy security than they’ve been in a generation, again, driven by concerns of Russia using a weapon. And Russia’s economy, of course, as a result in part of sanctions, largely of oil prices, mismanagement, is in very difficult shape. This is not a good strategic proposition for Russia. Neither is Syria.
MEAD: All right. We could talk more about that, but let’s get somebody else from the audience. Back there, yes.
Q: Ken Roth from Human Rights Watch.
I wanted to follow up, if I could, on Syria. I don’t think anybody quarrels with the importance of trying to achieve peace. But, you know, the Kerry-Lavrov talks have been going on for some two years. And I think it really raises the question, which you didn’t address quite as much, is: How do you mitigate the harm in the interim while these talks go on? You talked about humanitarian aid, and certainly the cross-border humanitarian aid has been very important. The cross-line much less so, unfortunately. But what you didn’t address is really the way Assad has chosen to fight this war, which is by deliberately targeting civilians. And that, more than anything else, is why we have millions of refugees.
And at least from my vantage point, it seems that Kerry is so focused on treating Russia as a potential partner in peace that he’s not treating it as an accomplice in mass murder. And he’s not using public diplomacy to pressure Putin, which is frankly the only way we’re going to have leverage over Assad to stop deliberately targeting civilians. And I wanted to challenge you on what I see is a big gap in U.S. policy towards Syria.
BLINKEN: Yeah. No, fair enough. We get up in the morning, go to bed at night, with these images in our minds as well. And it, I think, drives all of us. And it is probably the biggest frustration we’ve had that we have not been able to stop this, and certainly to stop this sooner. But practically speaking, you’re exactly right that what is driving so many people into leaving their lives behind, fleeing, putting everything at risk, putting themselves in another country, another language, a place that they don’t know, taking to the high seas with traffickers and putting their lives and their children’s lives in jeopardy—you’re exactly right. It is the horrific violence being directed at them by the regime—the barrel bombs, the chemical weapons, more recently the chlorine weapons, et cetera, the indiscriminate bombing.
So the question is, what is to be done? And the reason that Secretary Kerry is so intensely focused on this is that the practical answer to actually making people’s lives better, to saving them, to protecting them, to giving them space, is to get a cessation of hostilities, is to get more humanitarian assistance flowing, is to get a political transition going and ultimately a resolution on the civil war. It’s not pretty. It’s usually imperfect. It’s usually frustrating. But it seems to us that practically speaking that’s the best way we can address these problems.
Now, I don’t think we’ve been shy about calling out Assad and calling out his patrons for the atrocious human rights abuses they are committing every single day. We do that every single day. We do it from the podium at the White House, we do it at the United Nations, we do it around the world. And it’s usually important and usually necessary, but it is not sufficient to actually get a result. And the result lies in this painful, painstaking, frustrating thing called diplomacy, backed, I believe, by strength, and also backed by our assessment that—and we may be wrong—that ultimately, in the case of Russia, its interests lie in coming to a settlement as well.
MEAD: Well, thank you. I know we actually have a lot more questions, but we have gone beyond our allotted time and I’m going to have to call this meeting to a close. Thank you, Secretary. It’s a real pleasure to have you. Thank you. (Applause.)
BLINKEN: Appreciate it.