MR AXELROD: Thank you. Thank you, Katie, for the introduction, and for so much more. We’ll be – have more to say about that later. I want to welcome my old friend back —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s right.
MR AXELROD: — to the Institute of Politics. I don’t know if you remember, Mr. Secretary, when I called you in the winter of 2016 to talk to you about this. I distinctly remember, but I may be representing this, that I said: I think this job will be a stepping stone to secretary of state – (laughter) – being a fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: It was a stepping stone to employment after the Obama administration, so I’m grateful for that.
MR AXELROD: (Laughter.) Yeah. But before we get to the weightier issues at hand, because of this occasion, what did that fellowship mean to you? What did you take away from it?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, I took away that this is just an extraordinary community. I’ve had some chance to spend time on university and college campuses over the years, and I think it’s safe to say I’ve never been more impressed with a group of students that I had the opportunity to spend some time with back in 2017 – just extraordinary. So it’s good to be with all of you. (Applause.)
MR AXELROD: You guys can applaud for yourselves, it’s okay. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Although I have to say it was also just a little bit intimidating, because I asked myself at that age – and it’s not —
MR AXELROD: Yeah. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: — not a good – not a good answer. But also —
MR AXELROD: You were playing rock and roll, I think. Yeah.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, or trying to, anyway. But what I so admire about what you’ve done, Ax, and the entire team here, is help build a remarkable community, a community that’s giving back in a big way. The numbers I saw said that you’ve managed over the years to place 26-, 2700 people into internships in public service. That’s exactly what we need, so I couldn’t be more grateful for that.
MR AXELROD: Good, because we’re going to talk to you about some State Department internships after this.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Oh, good. (Laughter.) We now have paid internships for the first time in history, so – (applause).
MR AXELROD: I call that a cheap applause line. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Actually, a costly applause line.
MR AXELROD: This isn’t just the anniversary of the founding of the Institute of Politics, but it’s also the two-year anniversary of the Biden administration. Talk to me about these two years from your perspective as Secretary of State. What has gone well? What are you proudest of? What are the things where you look back and say, gee, I wish we had done that a little bit better, or differently, I should say?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So I think two years in, what it’s safe to say from my perspective, at least, is that we’re in a better place in the world than we were. The first instruction that I got from President Biden on taking the job was: Get out there, re-energize, rejuvenate, re-engage our alliances, our partnerships, our work in international organizations. And the reason he was so determined that we do that is that, if you’re looking around at all of the issues that are actually having an impact on the lives of pretty much everyone in this room – whether it’s the impact of a global pandemic; whether it’s climate change; whether it’s the effect that all of these new technologies are having on our lives, the stuff that we carry in our pockets every single day; whether it’s drugs, the fentanyl crisis – we can’t deal effectively with a single one of these issues unless we’re actually finding ways to cooperate and coordinate and work with other countries.
We’re – on climate change we’re 15 percent or so of global emissions. If we do everything right at home, we’ve still got to bring along the other 85 percent. COVID, which we all know all too well, we can do everything right at home – if there’s another variant circulating out there somewhere, it could still come back and bite us. I could go down the list. So we’ve done that, and in ways big and small, rolling up our sleeves every single day, we’re re-engaged.
The other thing he said was this: We have to be out there not only to cooperate and coordinate with other countries – we have to be out there and at the table. Because when we’re not, when America’s disengaged, one of two things happens. Either someone else tries to take our place, and probably not in a way that advances our own interests and values, or maybe just as bad, no one does, and we know the world doesn’t organize itself, and in the absence of anyone taking on that role you tend to have a vacuum that may be filled by bad things before it’s filled by good things.
So the bottom line is this: We are re-engaged, we’re out there, we’re leading again, and we’re doing it with other countries in ways that are building coalitions to tackle these problems. Now, there are a huge number of disruptors out there, and we have to find ways to effectively address them. We have geopolitical disruptors in the form of great power competition that’s emerged again, particularly with Russia and with China in different ways, and we have these transnational disruptors, the ones we’ve just referenced, that are having a big impact on people’s lives. But we’re in a better place to address them.
Last thing is this. We’ve been really smart about something else. Our strength at home is directly tied to our standing around the world. When we’re making smart investments in ourselves – as we did with infrastructure; as we did with the CHIPS Act to make sure that we remain the leader in making semiconductors here in the United States; as we did with the so-called Inflation Reduction Act, which is the biggest single investment made to deal with climate change in the history of this country – when we’re making those investments at home, it’s actually having an impact on our standing around the world. I’ve got partners, countries coming up to us and saying: We see what you’re doing to make yourselves stronger at home. We want to work with you; we want to partner with you.
MR AXELROD: I want to ask you about two aspects of that. One is what – there’s such a gap between the – your description of the meaning of foreign policy and public perceptions of it. I just saw a list of issues that people thought were most important, and I think – foreign policy was on it, and I think it was dead last among all the issues.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah.
MR AXELROD: You ask people how much money – when you ask about waste in a focus group, they say, “Well, there’s all that foreign aid.” Well, how much do you think it is? “Twenty-five percent of the budget.” Well, it’s less than one.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s right.
MR AXELROD: So how do you engage – I mean, you just made the case, but doesn’t there need to be sort of an active effort to engage the American people? Because we’re living in an age in which people are feeling very much inward – so how do you sell foreign policy in an environment like this, and isn’t that important?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We’ve got to do a better job in connecting the dots. One of the reasons that I wanted to be here today was to do that. One of the reasons that the President asked me to speak to the Conference of Mayors in Washington just a couple of days ago was to do that.
MR AXELROD: Yeah.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: One example, among others. The number one killer of Americans between the age of 18 and 49: fentanyl. Last year we lost more than 100,000 Americans to drug overdoses; 70 percent of those were from synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Well, there’s a lot that we can do and we are doing to try to reduce demand here. There’s a lot that we are doing and can do to try to disrupt the criminal organizations that are responsible for that.
But here’s the way it works. You’ve got chemicals that are produced halfway around the world, mostly in China right now – perfectly legal. They are then sent somewhere else, maybe to Mexico. They’re diverted to a criminal organization. It then uses those chemicals to make a synthetic opioid. You get pill presses that put them together. They get sent over the border one way or another. And you can make hundreds of thousands of pills in a room the size of this stage. Last year in the United States we seized – we seized – because keep in mind what we seize does not reflect what’s out there; we don’t even know exactly what’s out there – we seized enough fentanyl in this country to kill every single American.
So how do you connect the dots? Well, one of the things that we’re doing is trying to organize other countries to make sure that at least when perfectly legal chemicals are being shipped, people know who they’re shipping them to; that we’re sharing information to make sure that if front companies get set up, they’re identified; that things are labeled properly; that you know your customer. And that’s one of the ways our foreign policy – because it requires working with China, it requires working with India, it requires working with Mexico, and more and more countries that are being affected – that’s just one example of how what we’re doing around the world has a direct impact on people —
MR AXELROD: Let me come at this from a different perspective, which is the perspective of the world. I mean, one thing that’s clear when you talk to leaders from around the world or diplomats from around the world, as you do on a daily basis, is how much the American example and American actions mean to particularly other democracies. And the thing you hear is: Yeah, we trust Biden and we think things have – we appreciate the agreement and the outreach and so on, but how do we know that that’s going to be the case two years from now, or even six years from now? And they watch what happened on January 6th. They watched —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah.
MR AXELROD: They watch other sort of elements of our democracy that are less attractive and less reassuring. And they say: Can we count on the country? I mean, you must hear that all the time.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: You get some of that. Look, the President said it himself – I think pretty early on he was talking to one of his counterparts who said, “I’m so glad America’s back,” and then he said, “but for how long?” So sure, you hear that, and I can say two things. First, we have to deal with the here and now, what we can do in this moment, in the time that we have. And my premise is this: If we demonstrate by the policies we pursue and the way we pursue them that we’re actually delivering results, that we’re actually getting things done, that we’re actually making life a little bit safer, a little bit more secure, a little bit more prosperous, a little bit more healthy for our fellow citizens, then hopefully they’ll continue to support that approach. And I say the same things to colleagues around the world who are looking at how they’re going to work with us.
Second, there’s something incredibly powerful about our own recent history, which I’ve shared with others in conversation. One of the things that we still do as a country and that sets us apart is when we have problems here at home, we still deal with them openly, transparently. We don’t try to sweep them under the rug, pretend they don’t exist no matter how painful it is, no matter how ugly it is. And that’s actually a very powerful example, because when we’re asking other countries to do the same thing we can actually say: We’re doing it. You need, we hope, to confront your own problems; we’re actually demonstrating that you can do that and do it in an open and transparent way.
MR AXELROD: You talked about alliances. Obviously the place where it has been most dramatically reflected is in Ukraine, a situation that you couldn’t have foreseen when you became Secretary of State. The question comes up – and the failure just in the last 24 hours to come to an agreement on whether tanks, the German tanks, can be shared with the Ukrainians – the question comes up: How much time do you have there before the coalition frays? Putin is obviously playing a waiting game, and the Russians have great tolerance for suffering and he seems intent to try and wait this out. What are you telling the Ukrainians and what is your sense of where this goes and how quickly it has to move before this thing kind of frays?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: First I’d say that from almost day one, we’ve seen a lot of premature reports of the demise of the coalition. And on the contrary, not only has it held together, it’s grown consistently stronger. And I’ll come to the specific issue you raised. But time and again we’ve seen dozens of countries come together to try to make sure that Ukraine is getting what it needs when it needs it to defend itself, to push back against the Russian aggression, to take back the land that was seized, the humanitarian support, the economic support. We just did another so-called drawdown of military equipment for Ukraine, more than $2.5 billion. We’re up to almost $30 billion in military support, about $60 billion in total support. The Europeans have done much the same.
But what I’m finding is this: The center is very much holding, in two ways. Just before Christmas I had a chance to speak to the entire Senate – and something that your successor, Senator Heitkamp, knows so well – and I found talking to Republicans and Democrats alike in both the Senate and then the House that the center is still very, very much there. Similarly, if you go around the European countries —
MR AXELROD: The House, by the way, a little less so.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: No, but even so. I had a chance to spend some time with the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Mike McCaul – very strong supporter of the efforts in Ukraine. So I think the center is very much holding, and in Europe as well.
Now, on the weapons, let me say this: Every step along the way, starting from before the Russian aggression, we tried to make sure the Ukrainians had in their hands what they needed, what they could use to effectively push back against any Russian aggression. Before the war started, we saw the storm clouds. We tried to warn the world. We tried to prevent it. But even as we were doing that, we tried to make sure the Ukrainians were prepared. We did drawdowns of our equipment – Stingers and Javelins – going back to Labor Day a year ago and then again before Christmas. So they had in their hands what they needed when the Russians went to Kyiv, and they were able to repel it.
All along the way, we’ve tried to make sure that as the war moved, as the Russians shifted what they were doing and where they were doing it, the Ukrainians had what they needed. And you’ve seen a succession of different weapons systems go to the Ukrainians. There are – the discussions that we have with allies and partners, and including ourselves, is not only what weapons do they need but they need to be trained on them, so we’ve got to do that; they need to be able to maintain them; and they’ve got to be able to use them effectively. All of that goes into these decisions.
MR AXELROD: Yeah.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So it’s an ongoing process.
MR AXELROD: But everybody seems to agree – all the military, including our own, leaders seem to agree that they need tanks now. The British just sent them. They didn’t get them out of this meeting yesterday. How does this get resolved? Because this seems to be essential to the spring fighting that everybody predicts is going to happen.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We just sent Ukraine a large number of Bradley Fighting Vehicles, which are basically light tanks. The French have done some – done the same. The British have actually sent them combat tanks. Others are looking to do that. This is a – it’s an ongoing process that we’ll continue to work. But again, we have to make sure that for each system we send – and these are sovereign decisions for each country to make – different countries have contributed different things at different times, but all told what it adds up to is a Ukrainian fighting force that first of all starts with the courage and resilience of the fighting force and Ukrainian people, but because of what we’ve been able to provide them has done as well as it’s done.
And on the Russians, let me just say this to the first part of your question: This is not a static thing. You say Putin is going to try to wait them out. He’s not waiting them out in a situation where every single day he’s not doing extraordinary damage that he’s inflicting on his own people and his own military. That military has suffered horrific losses and continues to do so every single day. Meanwhile, the sanctions, the export controls that we’ve imposed on Russia are dramatically, dramatically undercutting its ability over time not only to continue the war, but to advance Russia’s economy, to allow it to pursue energy extraction. It’s going to have an increasingly profound and heavy effect on Russia going forward.
I wish that wasn’t the case. This is a tragedy brought about by Putin. The question that one would really love to ask the Russians, if we could speak more directly and clearly to them, is: How is what Putin is doing in Ukraine – how has that changed your life for the better? How has it done a single thing that makes you better off?
MR AXELROD: He – in addition to the price that Russia is paying, he’s inflicting a tremendous amount of heartache and damage on Ukraine. And it seems like with each assault and each attack, from a political standpoint, it makes it harder for President Zelenskyy to reach any sort of negotiated settlement other than the exit of Russia from the country. And one also wonders what Russian-held ground would be like given the hostility that people feel for them. But where do you think this ends?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, fundamentally this has to be a decision for Ukraine to make.
MR AXELROD: Yeah, I knew you would say that.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s —
MR AXELROD: But I mean, I’m just – (laughter) – I probably should kick myself for asking. But I mean, General Milley said he thought the fighting would go – would go on, that it ultimately would be a negotiation – it would have to be, that every war ends with a negotiation.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Right.
- AXELROD: But it seems like it gets harder and harder, given how much destruction is being inflicted on the Ukrainians.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, it does, and of course Zelenskyy has to be responsive to public opinion. He is a democratically elected president; he has to represent the Ukrainian people.
MR AXELROD: What’s your sense of him, by the way?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Oh, he’s extraordinary. I got to know him a bit before the Russian aggression. I was over in Ukraine several times before the Russians went in, spent time with him. In fact, when we had the intelligence that we shared with the world about what Russia was planning, one of my responsibilities at the President’s request was to go see President Zelenskyy and share with him what we had, basically to tell him, “We think your country’s going to be attacked,” which was a pretty sobering moment. But —
MR AXELROD: Publicly he was he was pushing back on that.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, there’s a reason for that.
MR AXELROD: He didn’t want people to flee.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: He didn’t want people to flee, he didn’t want investment to flee, because he was afraid that the more the possibility of conflict was talked up, the more his economy would be talked down. I understand that. But meanwhile, he was making the preparations that were necessary, and you saw that in what the Ukrainians were able to do, with our assistance, in repelling the attack against Kyiv. And by the way, Putin has already lost in terms of what he was trying to accomplish. What he was trying to accomplish was to erase Ukraine’s identity.
MR AXELROD: Topple him and —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: And – topple him, erase Ukraine as an independent country, subsume it into Russia. That has failed; that can’t succeed. Now, where this settles is a profound question, and what damage is done in between now and then, we don’t know. I was at – just earlier today in Chicago, I was in – at Ukraine Village and went to the modern art museum. They have an exhibit now on – of drawings, paintings by the children of war, by young Ukrainian children. And it shows their experience of the war through these drawings and paintings, and these are kids from – I don’t know, age 2, 3 up to 10, 11, 12, teenagers.
And this gets to another really important point. You walk in, you look at this, and I think the first reaction you have, if you have children, is: These could be my kids. What if this was my kid?
And what Putin is trying to do with the daily assault is to anesthetize all of us, to normalize this, for people to basically say, “Okay, this is happening,” and we just accept it as somehow normal, acceptable. That’s what we really have to avoid. We have to make sure that we collectively continue to make clear that no, this is not normal, this is not acceptable. And if we allow this to go forward with impunity in Ukraine, then we open a Pandora’s box where would-be aggressors around the world will say: Hmm, I can get away with it, I can get go ahead, seize another country’s territory by force, erase its borders, kill its people destroy its infrastructure, and nothing’s going to happen. That’s why this is important and is bigger than Ukraine itself. It goes beyond that, and it’s why we have to stick with it.
MR AXELROD: You were asked recently about what the greatest global challenge was, and it wasn’t from Russia, it was from China. You’re headed there in a few weeks. The President saw President Xi in Bali.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s right.
MR AXELROD: Talk about China, where – the China that you’re going to visit right now, not necessarily the same China from a year ago before the COVID debacle, before their economy was ground to a halt. What are you hoping to accomplish there?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So the President and President Xi had a very good, constructive, long conversation in Bali on the margins of this G20 meeting toward the end of last year, and I think the most important thing in the immediate for us is this: This is the most consequential and complex relationship of any that we have in the world. And by the way, the same is true – I think many other countries could say the same about the relationship with China. We’re in a competition. We have, I think, a moment in time, which we can also talk about, where we’re no longer in the post-Cold War era. There’s a competition on to shape what comes next.
China is a leading competitor, and in many ways, the vision that they have for what the world should be and where it should go is not the same as the one we have. But competition is one thing, conflict is another, and it’s strongly in our interest to make sure that even as we compete very, very vigorously, we avoid competition veering into conflict. One of the ways you do that is making sure that you actually have good lines of communication, that you’re talking, that you’re engaging, that you’re putting some guardrails on the relationship, that you’re putting a floor underneath it. That’s what the President and President Xi were doing in Bali. That’s the conversation they asked me to continue.
So that’s a big part of what we’re going to try to do. The other thing is this.
MR AXELROD: Well, that question can be very much shaped by issues like Taiwan —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s right.
MR AXELROD: — and China’s posture toward Taiwan. We saw what happened in Hong Kong. Do you think that you have a deeper understanding of their intentions, and do they have a deeper understanding of what the U.S.’s reaction would be to that?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I think – I think they do, especially from the last conversation between the presidents. And again, that’s something that I think it’s important to continue to pursue.
Look, two things. On Taiwan, what we’ve seen over the last few years is, I think, China make a decision that it was no longer comfortable with the status quo, a status quo that had prevailed for decades, that had actually been successful in terms of the relationship between our countries in managing what is a difficult situation. But they’d made a decision that that status quo was no longer acceptable, and we’ve seen them over the last few years – not the last few months, the last few years – ratchet up the pressure on Taiwan – military pressure, economic pressure, trying to cut off its ties to countries around the world, to international organizations. And from our perspective, that status quo has worked and it’s vital to what’s important to us, which is maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
What we’ve said to China is this. They say this is a sovereign issue for us; our response is this is an interest to the United States and to countries around the world. Because if peace and stability is disrupted across the strait, if something happens as a result of the actions you take, 50 percent of every container ship that is moving around the world every day goes through the Taiwan Strait; 70 percent or more of the computer chips manufactured in the world at the higher ends are manufactured on Taiwan. If that gets disrupted, the entire world economy will suffer. Every country in the world has an interest in making sure that peace and stability remains in the strait and that differences are resolved peacefully, not through pressure, not through coercion, and certainly not through the use of force. So it’s very important that they understand that even as we listen to their concerns.
On COVID, it’s also profoundly in our interest that China succeed in dealing with COVID. First, we do not want to see people suffering anywhere from the disease. Second, for its own – for the sake of its own economy, and as a result, for the sake of economies around the world, it’s important that they be able to recover and recover successfully. And third, if COVID is out of control anywhere, as I said earlier, you may get new variants. Those variants are going to travel around the world. They may come back here and we may find ourselves in trouble again. So it’s both the right thing on a human, moral level and the smart thing to want to make sure that they succeed. We can’t make those decisions for them. I hope that they do.
MR AXELROD: And you feel that the temperature has been lowered to some degree?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I think so, because again, when you’re talking and engaging, it tends to have that effect. There’s something else that’s going on. One of the things that I’m hearing around the world – and I think the Chinese are hearing the same thing – is there’s a demand signal. The rest of the world expects us to manage this relationship responsibly. They know that the way we manage it’s actually going to affect them too. They know that if we’re not finding ways and areas where we can, where it’s in our interest to cooperate, they will lose out on some of the benefits. We need, for example, to see China play a leadership role in dealing with climate change. We need to see them play a leadership role in dealing with global health, along with us and other countries. It’s in our interest to do so, but also that’s what other countries are saying to us. So we’re trying to be responsive to that. We’ll see if Beijing can do the same thing.
MR AXELROD: You mentioned the world in which we live today. I think about the young Tony Blinken – younger Tony Blinken —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. (Laughter.)
MR AXELROD: — who walked into the White House National Security Council as a junior aide years ago in the Clinton administration, and that was right after the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviet Union had collapsed, the U.S. was sort of a colossus astride the world – a unipower, as it were; superpower – and trade and globalization were seen as ways to lift economies around the world, and also as tools of diplomacy. We’re – it seems like we’re in a much different place. There was the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the administration in which you were the deputy secretary of state was going to be a way of creating an alliance of nations as a hedge against Chinese economic aggression, and that failed, and you don’t hear much about trade anymore. Globalization – we just had this Davos, the annual thing, Davos, which feels very much now like sort of Disneyland for the elites. It’s sort of like still fun to go but it’s a little dated.
So talk about how the world has changed and what that means for the U.S. What is the challenge in this new world that we find?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So I guess I’d say two things. First, let’s not be too hard on ourselves in terms of that moment in time and what we thought about it, because we got a lot of the big things right even as we got a lot of small things wrong. We managed to get through the Cold War without getting another world war. We managed to see the world lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty during that period. All of that was good. And if you actually did a freeze frame before COVID hit, in the aggregate, even – so even as recently as three years ago, in the aggregate, I think it’s fair to say the world was actually safer, more prosperous, healthier than it had been probably at any time in human history. This is kind of the Steven Pinker view of the world, but I think a lot of that is borne out.
But what we collectively, I think, missed were a few things. One is we missed that even as inequities between nations were actually shrinking, they were growing within them, and that’s had profound effects. And we see that play out here. We see that play out around the world. I think we had a faith that economic integration was going to bring other countries into much more positive relations with every other country. That hasn’t borne itself out. We thought that economic liberalization would lead to political liberalization. That —
MR AXELROD: Well, I mean, I think these things are connected, right, because that – the great economic polarization that we saw, winners and losers as a result of trade, as a result of globalization, created a backlash. And we see it in populist movements around the world, including the U.S. We saw it in Brexit. We saw it – we’ve seen it in a lot of different places.
What do we do about that? What do we do to give people a sense that they actually have a stake in the economic systems of our countries and that it’s not just the global elite that are benefiting from them?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, in the first instance, I come back to what I started with a few minutes ago, which is to say it starts at home and it starts with making smart investments in ourselves, investments that are actually going to deliver better results and better lives and livelihoods for our own people. And we’ve been making those investments and I think they’re going to start to pay out in the next few years.
MR AXELROD: Yeah, it also starts with a recognition that there were people and regions —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Oh, absolutely.
MR AXELROD: — that were losers in this deal.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Absolutely. Which is one of the reasons, for example, we want to make sure we’re – we’ve talked about the incredibly positive power for many years of the internet, but of course if it’s not widely shared that positive power is not going to be there for everyone. So rural connectivity has been a huge piece of this. And of course we also know the downsides of connectivity for everyone that we also have to grapple with. I guess —
MR AXELROD: There is enough connectivity that it has helped fuel some of these populist movements.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s right. So we have – that’s a whole other subject. But I think you’re exactly right. There has to be and I think there has been an awakening to the fact that in different ways too many people have been left out, left behind. But also, look, I think there are a lot of profound things that have happened.
This is – the President talks about this as an inflection point in world history that comes along every six or seven generations – not every decade but six or seven generations. And so much has been said and written about this, but one of the things I feel profoundly – you asked me what’s changed since I was first in government – when I started in government in the early 1990s the information environment was this: You, if you were working at the White House or anywhere else for that matter, at 6:30 at night you turned off your – turned on your TV if you had one in your office and you watched the network news, one of three channels. When you woke up in the morning, you opened your front door and you picked up The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal.
Now, of course, we’re on an intravenous feed of information every single day, every single millisecond of the day. And that has created a number of things, including for those of us who are in government this incredible pressure, which you know so well from being at the heart of things at the White House, this incredible pressure to be reactive almost immediately to everything that’s going on. Having the discipline to not to do that, to actually sit back, step back, think through what you’re doing – that’s more difficult than it’s ever been, but it’s also more imperative.
MR AXELROD: I should say parenthetically here I’m not going to ask you about the whole documents thing because I know you won’t answer, so I just wanted to put a pin in there.
A lot of the young people here care deeply about the issue of human rights. And I know you and I know your family history and I know how passionate you are about human rights, and yet there is always this tension between wanting to lead on human rights and the strategic imperatives of the country. So we think of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. You just met with the foreign minister from Türkiye, who wants F-16 fighters, something that the administration supports and some members of Congress don’t on human rights grounds. How do you navigate that? How do you say we are the guarantors of human rights at the same time that – but there are times when we can’t?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: President Biden wanted to make sure that one of the things we did was to put human rights back at the heart of our foreign policy, but it’s not and can’t be the totality of our foreign policy. I don’t see a zero-sum choice between values on the one hand and interests on the other. Human rights are a profound value for us, but they’re also a strong interest because we know that countries that actually respect the human rights of their citizens in a multiplicity of ways are going to be much better actors on the global stage with us, for us, and for the things that we care about.
So one of the things that we have to do in every relationship that we have is figure out the right balance of interests at any given time. We’re trying to advance all of them.
MR AXELROD: Is that painful?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Sometimes it’s painful, but sometimes it works in interesting ways that may not be so evident. You mentioned Saudi Arabia. Well, we spent a lot of time trying to recalibrate that relationship to make sure that it’s working better than it has been to actually address our interests. One of those interests is human rights. One of the benefits of what we’ve done over the last couple of years is we’ve gotten the Saudis engaged in a much more productive way and positive way in trying to end the war in Yemen. This is, when we took office, arguably was the worst humanitarian situation in the world, and the abuse of human rights of the people of Yemen was probably near the top of the list.
As a result of the kind of engagement that we pursued – okay, the conflict is certainly not over, but it’s in a much better place than it’s been. We’ve had a ceasefire that’s now endured for many, many months. People are not being killed the way they were before. Rights are in a better place than they were.
So you have to think about these things, I think, in ways that are you getting practical results.
MR AXELROD: It can be unsatisfying. You know there are a lot of – there are some journalists here who – and others who remember the Jamal Khashoggi massacre. And so it’s – it was jarring to see the President fist bump the guy who apparently was the mastermind of that murder. But you’re saying that’s – this is – this is what I’m trying to get at – I’m not being judgmental about that.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah. No, no, these are —
MR AXELROD: I’m saying, these are hard decisions. You’re going to meet the Chinese. They have essentially a gulag where the Uyghurs – a million Uyghurs are being —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We – no, you’re right. These – there are hard decisions; there are challenging balances to try to get right. But again, in the case of Saudi Arabia, I think there – I think it’s fair to say that there are Yemenis who would probably not be alive today had we not found a way to engage and bring the Saudis along in a way that’s at least produced, for now, a ceasefire.
Similarly, as we’re looking at these challenges we have with China, the profound abuses being committed against people in Xinjiang, we’ve stood up, we’ve spoken out, we’ve encouraged and gotten other countries to do the same thing, and we put a spotlight on it. And we’ve taken concrete actions in terms of sanctions. We’ve taken concrete actions in terms of, in many places, trying to make sure, for example, that we’re not importing products that are produced through slave labor.
MR AXELROD: But it’s a balancing act. You can’t – I realize you’re a diplomat, so you’re – there are things you can say and things that you can’t say. But I must say it must be frustrating at times that you have to make these balancing judgments, because I know your passion for – for people.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: If there weren’t frustrations on a daily basis, we’d be out of a job.
MR AXELROD: Yeah. We all —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: It would be great to be able to go out of business because the world is perfect, everything’s going well. But it’s the nature of the job.
MR AXELROD: One other thing I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about – because I asked you at the beginning what went well, what could have done better. You’re about – I’m sure you’re about to go through some bracing hearings about the withdrawal from Afghanistan. And let’s stipulate that – I think a lot of Americans would say yeah, it is a good thing that we are not there anymore – concern about what’s happened to human rights there – but the withdrawal remains a question. And as always in Washington, there’s a lot of fingers pointing in different directions, some of them at the State Department. Do you look back at that and say – and ask the sort of after-action, “What should we have done differently?”
SECRETARY BLINKEN: You always look back at what you’ve done and try to ask that question. And one of the things that we did is we’ve actually – we’re taking a hard look at that. And we commissioned a study by one of our leading retired diplomats to do just that, and that’s something we’ll be, I’m sure, talking about in the weeks and months ahead. We want to make sure that in any instance, especially one as challenging, as fraught as that, that we learn whatever lessons are to be learned and that we apply them going forward, and we’ve already started to do that.
MR AXELROD: But you acknowledge it was fraught?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So I’d say a few things. First, to your point, President Biden ended the longest war in American history, and the result of that is that there will not be future generations of Americans going off to fight and die in Afghanistan. I think that’s a good thing, and I think that’s something that most Americans support.
Second, many of the predictions —
MR AXELROD: And I was there in 2009; he’s very consistent in his view.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We both heard it together then.
MR AXELROD: Yeah.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Second, many of the predictions, at least until now, of some of the terrible things that might result have not borne out. We’ve not seen an upsurge in terrorism coming out of Afghanistan – in fact, we’ve demonstrated that to the extent that terrorists and there and being harbored there, we’re able to actually get at them, as we were able to do with Zawahiri. We haven’t seen to date a mass refugee exodus —
MR AXELROD: Been hard for women and girls there.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: But – that’s what I was coming to. We have also seen the Taliban being either unable or unwilling to make good on things it’s said it would do and that the international community, not just the United States, said we expected of them, starting with making sure that they were actually protecting the rights of all Afghans, including women and girls. That has been a dramatic step backwards, and we’re working to deal with that as best we can now.
MR AXELROD: I – we’re going to have to go to questions. I do want to ask you this. There are a lot of people here who are considering what they want to do with their lives. And there was a period of time in the last decade when joining the Foreign Service became less attractive. And talk – I want to give you a couple of minutes to make a sales pitch here for why people should consider that work, that form of service.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So I’ve had an incredible opportunity in my own life to do a bunch of different things. I was a journalist for a while. I was a lawyer for a while, for one year, 10 months, two weeks, three days, and five hours. (Laughter.)
MR AXELROD: That good, huh?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah, that good. But for those of you who intend to go into the law, it’s great. (Laughter.) I dabbled in movies, et cetera. And then, after a long, circuitous journey, I wound up in government, working for President Clinton. And for the past 30 years, that’s pretty much what I’ve done, with a couple of periods of time out of government because elections happen and things change.
And what I can tell you is this: There are so many different ways to find fulfillment, to find happiness, to find a sense of purpose in life – in the private sector, in NGOs, in academia, you name it. For me, at least, having had these different experiences, there is something unique about serving in government, and that something unique is right there behind us, and it’s behind me every single day, either figuratively or literally. And it may sound corny, but for me at least, knowing that I’m there with the American flag behind me every day is something that I haven’t really found in any other pursuit that I’ve engaged in.
So I really commend it to folks to find a way, and it doesn’t have to be in Washington in the federal government. I think public service in some fashion, serving your community, if not serving your country – there’s something about that that just is unique in the fulfillment that you get from it, even with the frustrations that come along with it.
MR AXELROD: Yeah.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We just had the largest entering class at the State Department that we’ve had in more than a decade, so I am incredibly proud of that – (applause).
MR AXELROD: Yeah.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: And – but here’s the thing. Here’s the thing: It needs constant renewal. One of my missions is to make sure, to the extent I can have anything to say about it, is that we continue to attract the most talented, most dedicated people that we possibly can. That’s what I want to see happen. It’s one of the reasons, David, that we’re spending time not only in dealing with all of these external problems, but also trying to make our own institution as strong as it can be and an attractive place to work.
We’re in a competition for talent. We know that. So we have to make sure that our department is a place that people want to work. We’ve done that in a number of ways that probably time doesn’t allow me to get into. But as it happens, our diplomat in residence, Susan Falatko, is right here today. I think she may even be at a table outside. If you’d like some information about the State Department, we welcome you stopping by and grabbing it or looking at the website.
MR AXELROD: I hope you do. I hope you do.
We’ve got to take some questions. We don’t have to, but we want to. I shouldn’t say it like that. And as usual, I’ve snarfed up more than my share of time. Where is the staff member – where are staff members with the microphones? All right, you choose somebody. Choose somebody. I’m not going to do it and make everybody else mad. Just pick somebody who wants to ask a question – a student, though, would be preferable.
QUESTION: Hi. Hi, can everybody hear me? I’m in the middle last row, David, if you can’t see me.
MR AXELROD: Okay.
QUESTION: Yeah. I really enjoyed listening to Secretary Blinken and David talk about the role of the U.S. on the global stage. My name is Andre. I’m a first year in the college and I’m from Hong Kong, so I’m particularly concerned with where Hong Kong stands on the table of priorities currently at the State Department.
And I understand that there are many international constraints in its balancing act, but domestically the U.S. can do much more boldly to protect Hong Kongers. In 2021, President Biden issued a deferred enforced departure order for Hong Kongers in the U.S. Currently that’s expiring in a little less than three weeks. That means Hong Kongers living in the U.S. still live in uncertainty whether they have to go back to Hong Kong, to a city where it’s not their home anymore, and join the ranks of more than 1,200 political prisoners.
So my concern is: Why is the administration not more proactive on looking for longer-term solutions for Hong Kongers despite the presence of many bipartisan efforts in the past, especially in Congress, to give Hong Kongers more options?
MR AXELROD: Yeah, yeah – I don’t want to cut you off, because it’s such a profound question, but I want to give you a chance to answer maybe yet another question as well.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good, yeah. First of all, thank you for sharing that. And let me first of all assure you that we are working on this and we are engaged with Congress on this.
Second, I think the experience of Hong Kong in recent years has been one of the most sobering reality makers for people around the world that we’ve seen, and what has happened in terms of the reversal of Hong Kong’s democracy through the actions that the – that Beijing has taken. What has happened in terms of in effect gutting the notion of “one country, two systems” has had I think a profound effect not only for people in Hong Kong but beyond, and I think one of the reasons that you’re seeing people focused on Taiwan so much right now is precisely because of the experience that Hong Kong has gone through over the last few years.
We continue to look for ways to see what we and others can do to make a difference, both in making sure that we’re helping and supporting those who are in very difficult circumstances as a result of the change in Hong Kong. We’re looking very hard at the effect this is having on Hong Kong itself, and there are lots of things that are happening, competing pressures that are changing the entire nature of Hong Kong, which is deeply, deeply, deeply disturbing. But I want to assure you that in terms of the needs of people who are in jeopardy as a result of what’s happened, this is something that we’re very actively focused on.
MR AXELROD: It seems like this is one of those frustrating issues where imperatives collide.
One more question. Yeah, don’t – address yourself to the people with the – who have all the power with the microphones.
QUESTION: Yes. Hi, my names is James and I’m a second year in the college, and what I want to ask about is the way in which that you answered the question, saying that the Biden administration and its foreign policy is leading both with having strategic interests as well as human rights as the forefront. And I was – really wanted to direct the question toward the United States’ relationship with Israel, and especially in these – this past few weeks, Prime Minister Netanyahu not adhering to the rule of law, and especially this week having a deadline really to fire the minister that was supposed to be expelled by the supreme court.
So I was wondering, in which – how will the United States’ relationship with Israel change, especially noting that they are a strategic partner in the Middle East – but also, democracy is very important in the region; and having a partner that adheres to democracy – in which ways will the Biden administration further that?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So thank you. A lot to be said about this. In the interest of time, let me just say this. First, we have a relationship with Israel that has been built over many, many decades, through many different administrations in both the United States and in Israel. There are certain things that are foundational, including a commitment to Israel’s security, and that is not going to change. One of the benefits of a relationship as close as the one that we have is that we can speak very directly and very clearly to each other in private as well as in public when we do have differences, including differences in approach in things that are happening inside of Israel, just as we’ve heard Israelis make very clear their differences about some of the policies that we’ve pursued over the years. And that also is not going to change.
So one of the things that I’ve said is we’re very much focused, not on the particular personalities of any one Israeli government but on the policies that that government pursues, and we’re very much engaged with them now. But we have to also give a chance for things to play out. Some of the things that you mentioned are very recent developments that have not yet run their course, so let’s see how things actually evolve.
MR AXELROD: Let me just ask one follow-up to that, which was a good question. Given the coalition that Prime Minister Netanyahu has had to put together, the most right wing coalition in the history of the country, what has been – what have you communicated – I guess this is stupid question because you won’t answer, but have you – (laughter) – what has been communicated about red lines? And are their red lines in terms of settlements, in terms of human rights, in terms of issues of concern, democratic rights within the State of Israel?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: David, I’m tempted to say, “You’re right.” I’m not going to —
MR AXELROD: Yes – (laughter) – we’ve known each other a long time.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: But in fact, a couple of months ago I had an opportunity to speak to the relationship and the various issues in the relationship. I got a chance to talk to folks at J Street in Washington. And besides making clear our enduring commitment to Israel’s security and laying out how we’re doing that, I also made clear that we continue to believe deeply in and are committed to two states, and to make sure, to the best of our ability, that we’re pursuing policies that allow Israelis and Palestinians alike to know equal measures of democracy, dignity, opportunity. We’ve been very clear in the past; we’ll remain very clear in the future about our views on settlements and their expansion, on demolitions, and on violence, including from the settler community, directed at Palestinians or Israeli Arabs – just as we were very clear, of course, about incitement, certainly about terrorism, et cetera.
So I think there’s a very clear consistency in our policy that we’ve laid out before the new government came in, and that we’ll continue to engage on in the weeks and months ahead.
MR AXELROD: Yeah. I guess the thing that we have to – that we’ll discover is how much that clarity of message is received. But let me just say, Mr. Secretary, my friend, Tony, we are so proud to claim you as an alum of the Institute of Politics. The Institute of Politics is what it is because people like you with a wealth of experience are willing to share their time and the lessons of their experience with the leaders of tomorrow. And so the fact that you came back here today and took time in your busy schedule to be with us as we marked our own occasion means the world to me.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: David, thank you. And I feel a real attachment, not only to you personally because we’re such good friends and colleagues over many years, but to the IOP and to the University of Chicago. It was a great experience for me, so being back is a wonderful thing. I had some just extraordinary colleagues who were here as fellows at the same time, so I’m really grateful for that.
Last night – I’ve got – as you know, I’ve got little kids. I have a soon-to-be three-year-old daughter and a soon-to-be four-year-old son. And my wife was putting our daughter to bed, and as she was putting her to bed, my daughter said, “Oh, should we wait for daddy?” And my wife said, “No, no, he – actually he’s in Chicago tonight and he’ll be back tomorrow.” And she looked at my wife with real concern and said, “Do they have beds in Chicago?” (Laughter.) So I’m gonna go back tonight and report that yes, they do. And they have an incredible Institute of Politics.
MR AXELROD: It’s one of our – it’s one of our great virtues. So – thank you so much.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. (Applause.)