Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined Foreign Affairs Editor Daniel Kurtz-Phelan for a conversation about the evolution of American foreign policy and the challenges facing the Biden administration today in regard to Russia, China, the war in Ukraine, and more.
This discussion is the first in our centennial event series celebrating the 100th anniversary of Foreign Affairs.
Speaker: Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State
Presider: Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, Editor, Foreign Affairs
Time: 1:00 p.m. EDT
Date: Wednesday, June 1, 2022
KURTZ-PHELAN: Good afternoon. I’m Dan Kurtz-Phelan. I’m the editor of Foreign Affairs.
Later this year, Foreign Affairs will turn a hundred years old, and I’m thrilled to welcome you all to the first in a series of events that we’re doing to celebrate our birthday. And I cannot think of a more fitting kickoff guest than the current secretary of state, Tony Blinken, especially since he is also a Foreign Affairs author. Nor can I think of a more interesting time in recent history to be having this conversation or to be in his position.
That is underscored by the fact that we have rescheduled this event twice. The first time it was planned was for February 24th, and we all know what happened that day. The second time the secretary ended up going to Ukraine. So, given the global tumult at the moment, I won’t spend any more time on introduction just so we can be sure that no global crisis pulls the secretary away before we get into the conversation.
He’s going to say a few words before we go to questions, first from me, then from Foreign Affairs readers and Council members. Mr. Secretary, a huge thank you for doing this, especially at such an intense moment in history. Over to you.
BLINKEN: Dan, thank you very much. Thanks for bringing us together for this conversation. Let me thank Sam as well for convening us.
And it’s great to be, virtually at least, with everyone at the Council and all the readers of Foreign Affairs, which I include myself in. In fact, we have one huge problem, which is despite the virtual world that we live in I continue to get Foreign Affairs in hardcopy. This presents something of a challenge when it comes to shelf space, because over the many decades that I’ve been a subscriber it builds up. But we’re trying to figure that out.
As Dan said, we planned to have this conversation some months ago. And indeed, February 24th was the original date, and we all know what happened on that date. And then, as Dan said, the second time we did it I wound up going to Ukraine. So I have to admit to you, when I woke up this morning I was wondering what was actually going to happen—(laughs)—in the intervening hours. So I’m really glad that, thus far at least, nothing has so we can have this conversation today.
I want to thank you for bearing with me as we get this—as we got this get-together back on the books, but I’m glad we were finally able to do it. And, in fact, the world has changed quite a bit in the few months that have passed since the original date we planned to get together. So before turning to the conversation with Dan, turning to questions, let me just say a couple of words first.
First, I really am delighted to be able to help kick off the hundredth-anniversary celebration for Foreign Affairs. The ideas, the analysis that I’ve been privileged like so many of you to read and take in over many years in that distinctive blue cover have literally helped generations of scholars, generations of practitioners, leaders, foreign policymakers of one kind or another, citizens wrap their minds around the most complex issues of the day. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in Foreign Affairs about the global consequences of racism and colonialism. George Kennan—need I say more?—if you go back and look at the infamous "X" Long Telegram, you will see, remarkably, passages in it that sound like they could have been written today.
Foreign Affairs foresaw a number of the trends that are actually defining our lives today more broadly. We went back and looked at a number of issues over the years. Back in 2005, so some time ago when some of us were still—(laughs)—literally using internet cafes to check our email, this magazine predicted the rise of all kinds of internet-enabled projects. Many of us, I think, may have read that at the time and not been able to foresee what Foreign Affairs did. Now we’ve got cars with wi-fi and refrigerators that give us weather reports. Well, Foreign Affairs was on it early.
Back in May—June of 2001, I was privileged to appear in the pages of Foreign Affairs. The piece that I wrote then was titled “The False Crisis Over The Atlantic,” and the case it made was that the interests of Europe and the United States were fundamentally aligned whatever the differences of the day and despite, at that period in time, a lot of fears of us growing apart. So here we are, twenty-one years later; Europe and the United States are standing and acting together in the face of a very real crisis. And I would argue that not just in that crisis, but beyond it we are more aligned than we’ve been in many years.
So let me say a few words about Ukraine-Russia, and then we can get to a conversation. The aggression that we’re seeing from Russia has provoked an extraordinary response in Ukrainians, who are fighting valiantly to defend their country, to defend their people, to defend their independence. They are first and foremost responsible for the success they’ve had thus far in repelling the Russian aggression, but it’s also fair to say that the strong support that they’ve received from the United States and from many other countries around the world—security assistance, humanitarian assistance, economic assistance—has also been a difference maker. And we’re doing that, and of course keeping and even building pressure on Russia to end its aggression.
Today, as many of you will have seen, President Biden announced a significant new security assistance package for Ukraine to help give the Ukrainians what they need now to deal with the particular nature of the challenge that they face now in southern and eastern Ukraine. And this will enable them to better defend their territory against the Russian onslaught.
We’re also continuing to work with partners to try to address the crises that Putin’s aggression in Ukraine have helped exacerbate or even provoke. Number one on the top of the list is the food-security crisis that we’re seeing around the world. Already preexisting conditions—climate, COVID—and now you add conflict, this has had a profound effect on the ability of a lot of food to get out of what has been a breadbasket for the world, Ukraine, as well as Russia itself for that matter, causing prices to spike in places where food actually is available, causing shortages in places where it is harder to get at. So we’re working very hard on that. I’m happy to come back to that when we—when we have a conversation.
But let me just say this. Even as the—(clears throat)—excuse me—brutal fighting continues, we already see that President Putin has failed to achieve his broader strategic objectives. Instead of erasing Ukraine’s independence, he strengthened it. Instead of asserting Russia’s strength, he’s undermined it. Instead of dividing and weakening the international order, he’s actually brought countries closer together to defend it.
You all know this very well. This war is not just about Ukraine, even though its principal victims are, of course, Ukrainians. It is an assault, as well, on the fundamental principles of a rules-based international order—a phrase that we throw around a lot, particularly on 68th Street, but one that really still has meaning, and we find has meaning for countries around the world. They know that these rules, these norms, these standards, these basic principles that we established many, many years ago to try to preserve peace and security actually have been relatively effective in doing that for all of the challenges we’ve had in matching our ideals to practical realities. And they see these rules as being under assault by Russia in Ukraine as well.
Finally, let me just add a word on China and then we’ll have a conversation. Even as we’re doing everything we can to stand up for Ukraine’s security, for its democracy, for its independence, we will resolutely remain focused on other challenges that we face around the world, starting with what we see as the most serious long-term challenge to that rules-based order, and that’s the challenge posed by the People’s Republic of China.
I gave a talk on China last week. In it I said that China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and increasingly the ability to do so economically, diplomatically, militarily, technologically. It’s also an integral part, of course, of the global economy. It’s critical to our ability to solve big global challenges, from COVID to climate.
So you put all that together and that makes it for us the most consequential and complex relationship of any we have in the world. Simply put, we’re going to have to be dealing with each other for years and years to come. The question is how most effectively to do that in terms of our interests and our values.
One of the things that we believe strongly—and this has been a debate and discussion going on for many years in Washington and in New York and in other places—but where we now land is that we can’t rely on Beijing to change its own trajectory. What we can do and what we’re working to do is to shape the strategic environment around Beijing to advance our positive vision for an open and inclusive international system.
As I described last week, summing it up, our plan is focused on three things: Invest, align, compete. Invest in ourselves, something we’ve gotten away from over many decades. Align with our allies and partners, because our collective weight together has a much greater impact than any of our countries acting alone. When we’re dealing with some action or conduct by China that we find objectionable, it’s one thing when the United States takes it on alone as 20-25 percent of world GDP. It’s another when we’re aligned with partners and allies, and maybe it’s 50 or 60 percent of world GDP.
And then, finally, compete with China to defend our interests and build our vision for the future. At the same time, as we tried to make clear, we still see important areas of cooperation, and we’ll pursue those wherever we can.
Last piece is this. I’ve got a really hackneyed acronym that my colleagues here at State are sick of hearing me say, and it’s ROW, “row,” rest of world. Beyond China, beyond the crisis in Ukraine, we’re determined to row, to keep the focus on the rest of the world, to make sure that American diplomacy is engaged in trying to make things just a little bit better, a little bit more peaceful, a little bit more hopeful, a little bit more prosperous, a little safer for our own citizens.
So whether it’s COVID, whether it’s climate, whether it’s dealing with crises and conflict from Ethiopia to Yemen, we’re engaged. We’re doing that. That’s what our diplomacy is all about. And that’s what President Biden asked us to do. He wanted to make sure that, even as we reasserted our engagement in the world, that we led with our diplomacy. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.
So let me stop there. And Dan, back over to you.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Great. Well, thank you, Mr. Secretary, for your kind words about the magazine. And we’ll look forward to getting your byline back in it at some point when you have time.
Let me start with Ukraine, and especially the question of how we define success in U.S. policy. And I mean that in two regards. First, on the ground, you know, the clear and insistent message from the administration is, as the president put it in his op-ed yesterday, nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. Does that mean if the Ukrainians are ready to keep fighting, do we go back to February 23 lines, the United States is prepared to keep up our support militarily and economically until they have achieved what they want to achieve on the battlefield? Or if they say we want to go back to 2013 lines, even with regards to Crimea, will we continue that support?
And then, second, with regard to Russia, you talked about the ways in which Russia has been weakened. The administration has talked about the need to deliver Russia strategic defeat. Can you say more about what that looks like? How would a successful scenario from the U.S. perspective—will Russia and Russian power look after this war from the way it looked at the beginning?
BLINKEN: Sure. And those are—I think those are great bookend questions because they, in fact, go together.
A few things. First, when it comes to Ukraine, from my perspective, we cannot and will not be less Ukrainian than the Ukrainians. We’re also not going to be more Ukrainian than the Ukrainians. And fundamentally, where this ends up really needs to be a decision by the Ukrainians, a decision that we’ll support.
But broadly speaking—and this goes to the second part of your question—here’s what we see as principles to guide us as we’re working through this. First, whatever happens, we want to make sure that we end up with a Ukraine that is independent, sovereign, and has the capacity to defend itself and ideally deter any future aggressions from Russia or from anyone else. That’s one.
Second, Russia should have a lesser ability to repeat this exercise in the future. So some of the measures that we’ve taken, including the export controls, which are having a significant impact and will have a growing impact on Russia’s ability, for example, to modernize its defense sector, those will, as I say, have an impact over time and make it maybe a little less likely that Russia does this in the future, as well as Ukraine’s ability to really have a strong deterrent, something that we can do something about going forward.
Third, we want to make sure that our NATO alliance is doing what is necessary to shore up its own defense and deterrence. We’ve made a very good start of that in recent months. We have a NATO summit coming up where we’ll take additional steps forward.
And finally, two other things. I think we want to make sure that we use this aggression as an opportunity also to help Europeans as they move away from decades-long dependence on Russia for energy. We’re seeing that start in a very significant way, in ways we haven’t seen before. We’d like to see that continue, and we’re taking steps to help.
Finally, moving beyond Europe, it’s important that China take the right lessons from this. And I think what China has seen thus far, at least, is countries coming together in unprecedented ways to make sure that we are supporting Ukraine in terms of providing it what it needs to defend itself, to deal with its economic situation, to deal with the humanitarian crisis, that we’re exerting extraordinary pressure, unprecedented pressure, on Russia, and, as I said, that we’re also making sure that our own defenses and deterrence are built up.
China is looking at this very closely, very carefully. We want to make sure that it takes away the right lessons. But fundamentally, again, where this actually ends up tactically on the battlefield, where lines are drawn, we are looking to Ukraine to decide that. We will continue to support them to make sure that they have what they need to deal with Russian aggression now, and also that they have the strongest possible hand to play at a negotiating table if and when it emerges.
I believe one eventually will. Most of these things end in some fashion diplomatically. I hope that that’s sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, the signs we’re seeing right now don’t suggest that Russia is prepared to engage in a meaningful way in diplomacy.
KURTZ-PHELAN: You mentioned the assistance package that the president announced yesterday. And one piece of that was multiple-launch rocket systems the Ukrainians have been pressing for publicly, and I presume privately as well, for some time. This was the latest instance of what seems to be an intense and careful effort by you and your colleagues to weigh, on the one hand, the risks of escalation between the United States and Russia and NATO and Russia, and, on the other hand, the need to give the Ukrainians what they say they need and what we assess they need to fight effectively on the battlefield.
In the case of the rocket systems, Foreign Minister Lavrov had, of course, warned that this would be, quote, a serious step toward unacceptable escalation. That was a warning that the administration evidently discounted. But can you talk through a bit how you assess that process, how you make that calculation, and why in this case you, despite that warning from the Russians, decided that this was a step the United States should take?
BLINKEN: First, as a matter of broad principle, our objective, of course, is to help the Ukrainians bring this aggression to an end, not to expand it, not to widen it, whether in Ukraine or beyond. President Biden has been clear about it from day one.
Something else the president has been very clear about from day one, including directly with President Putin, and that is exactly what we would do in the event that Russia pursued the aggression that it was threatening and that we saw coming many, many months ago. And he had conversations with President Putin well before the aggression began, to just be very clear with him about what to do expect—what to expect in terms of our support for Ukraine, including with security assistance, as well as economic and humanitarian assistance if that proved necessary, what to expect in terms of the massive consequences that would befall Russia if it pursued the aggression, what to expect in terms of NATO strengthening its own defenses.
So we have not been hiding the ball on that. There, in a sense, have been no surprises. All of this was made clear to President Putin well in advance in an effort to deter him from proceeding with the aggression. Tragically, he went ahead anyway.
And then, Dan, all along we have tried to make sure that what we are providing to the Ukrainians, as well as what others are providing, meet the moment, and that is the equipment we provide is what they need to deal with what Russia is actually doing. So, for example, what was provided to the Ukrainians in the initial stages of the aggression, particularly in defense of Kyiv, with things like Stingers and Javelins really answered the moment. And by the way, that’s not something that started on February 24th or February 25th; it actually goes back to last Labor Day when the president did an initial drawdown package. Another very significant drawdown package, as we call them—this is the release of articles that our Defense Department has at hand—another very significant one at Christmas, so well before February 24th, and then, of course, since February 24th we’re now on our eleventh package. But each of these is tailored to meet the moment.
As the conflict has changed, as it’s moved away from Kyiv because of the extraordinary courage of Ukrainians but armed with what they needed to push the Russians back—as this has moved to the south and east the nature of the conflict has changed, and one of the things that is necessary, and we heard from the Ukrainians on this, was the need for some longer-range artillery because the Russians were now in a position where their supply lines were shorter because all of this is much closer to Russia, they controlled before February 24th a chunk of the Donbas, they could use that to position their forces and position their equipment, and then fire things at relatively long range at the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians had to have some way at getting back at that and not simply being under fire from the Russians, so the systems that are being provided now are designed to help them do that. But it was also important to us that we get assurances from Ukraine that this equipment would not be used to attack Russia in Russia, because, as I said at the start, we don’t seek to escalate this conflict; we’re trying to bring it to a close but bring it to a close in a way that defends the principles at stake and defends Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty.
So that’s how we’ve been looking at this. And, again, I think whatever the Russians say—(laughs)—we’ve been very clear from the start about what we were going to do, and we’re doing it.
KURTZ-PHELAN: We could, of course, keep going on Ukraine all afternoon, but let me keep your ROW caution in mind and turn to a different subject. You mentioned the speech you gave on China last week and I’d urge anyone who hasn’t listened or read the speech to go and do so because it really is the most substantial statement of U.S. strategy on China that’s been made in some months. But I want to focus on one dimension of our strategy and our policy. You stressed in that speech that we don’t seek to block China from becoming strong, from becoming a major power, and yet, you also made clear that Beijing’s vision of and approach to global order is not acceptable, from our perspective. The rejoinder from Chinese analysts and policymakers is that this is what they always hear from American officials that, you know, we welcome your strength but everything you do with that strength we find objectionable.
So I’m wondering if you can say a bit about what the appropriate role for a strong China is. You know, are there ways in which the rules-based order of the international system can and should change to accommodate that strength? What do you see a strong China doing?
BLINKEN: So a few things on this. It really is worth repeating and reiterating: We are not seeking to block China. We’re not seeking to keep China down. As I said in the speech, we’re certainly not looking for conflict and we’re not looking for a new cold war. But the profound difference is this: I believe China wants a world order, which is good because order is usually better than the alternative. But the profound difference is this: The order that we’ve sought to build, very imperfectly, but that we sought to build is profoundly liberal in nature; the order that China seeks is illiberal. We disagree and it’s as basic and fundamental as that. And so to the extent that China’s taking steps that would undermine the liberal, in the broader sense of the term, nature of the order, we’re going to oppose that. And again, we’ve been clear about that; there’s no secret to it.
On issue after issue, a China that is acting in a positive, productive way should be a major contributor to dealing with the problems that the world faces, from COVID to climate, nonproliferation. I could go down the list. And we will continue to seek its cooperation, its coordination on that. Just a week ago, ten days ago—we had the presidency of the U.N. Security Council this past month, in May. We used it to focus on the growing global food insecurity crisis that we’re dealing with, a product, as I said, of COVID, of climate, and now of conflict, because the Russian aggression in Ukraine is denying so much wheat and other grains to the world market, blockaded in Ukrainian ports by the Russians. We’ve sought to work with China on that. In fact, we invited them to take part in the ministerial meeting that we had on the food crisis; regrettably, they chose not to join, but the door is open. China has a tremendous ability to use its power, its influence to productive ends, and again, we would welcome that.
On COVID, it is vital going forward, even as we’re trying to bring COVID to an end, that we build a stronger, more effective, more agile global health security system that includes better real-time exchange of information, access for experts, the ability to see some kind of pathogen emerging and to be able to do something about it. China could be a major player in that. I hope that it would be. So, you know—and these and so many other issues—obviously nonproliferation. When it comes to North Korea, when it comes to Iran, China has a major role to play.
But ultimately, Dan, this is what I come back to: We can’t decide for China; we don’t purport to do that. We can’t compel it to do X, Y, or Z. It’s going to make its own decisions. What we can do is shape the environment in which it makes those decisions, and that’s what the strategy that we put forward is all about, particularly when it comes to aligning with allies and partners, and there, I have to say, we have seen in the fifteen months or so that we’ve been in office, a growing convergence in attitudes toward China, toward the challenge that it represents because some of the things that we’re concerned about—we’re not unique. There are shared concerns, shared grievances, and the more we’re able to, as we say, align with other countries in dealing with them, the more effective we’re going to be because, again, if it’s an economic matter, for example, if we are 20 or 25 percent of world GDP, well, that’s one thing for China to have to contend with. If we’re aligned with European partners, with Asian partners, it may be 50 or 60 percent of world GDP; that’s a very different matter and something that China has to take seriously.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let me go to one other ROW topic and that is Saudi Arabia and whether or not the president, in fact, goes later this month. As has been reported, there certainly have been, I think, a surprising degree of progress in the relationship, given the administration’s statements about the crown prince and about the state of U.S.-Saudi relations early on after Inauguration Day. If the president does go, do you expect to see progress from Saudi on some of the human rights concerns that you expressed and the administration expressed early on? Do you expect to see certain steps taken to end the war in Yemen as a part of that trip, or is the need to open the oil spigots and the possibility of steps towards normalization with Israel sufficient reason enough for the president to go?
BLINKEN: Dan, when we came in, President Biden was determined that we recalibrate the relationship with Saudi Arabia and to make sure that that relationship was serving our own interests as well as our values as we move forward, but also preserving it, because it also helps us accomplish many important things, which I’ll come to in a second, and that’s largely what we’ve done. Of course, we had the murder of Mr. Khashoggi; that was something that we and so many others around the world took very, very seriously. One of the things that we did early on and that I did at the president’s direction was, of course, to release our own report on his murder. I wouldn’t underscore the—I wouldn’t underestimate the significance of that because having that report out, with the imprimatur of the United States government, I think has real meaning. At the same time, we initiated the so-called Khashoggi ban to make sure that any country that seeks to use tools of repression against people abroad who are criticizing, in one way or another, the government would pay a price for that, and we’ve actually used it multiple times since.
At the same time, we thought it was very important to engage Saudi Arabia, to deal with people’s lives going forward and to make sure that we were doing everything possible to help secure those lives. Yemen was one of the most important places that we wanted to do that, and what we’ve seen as a result of our work with Saudi Arabia as well as with the UAE and, of course, with the United Nations and some other countries is real progress in actually dealing with one of the worst conflicts the world has seen over the last decade.
We helped achieve the first truce in eight years in Yemen just a couple of months ago. I’m hopeful that that truce is now going to be extended. We’ll see what happens over the next couple of days. But as a result of that, we have more humanitarian assistance moving to different parts of Yemen. We have, in effect, the guns, relatively, silenced, which means that people are not being killed and injured.
We have attacks against Saudi Arabia that have ceased, and, by the way, there are seventy thousand Americans in Saudi Arabia. So not only do we have a commitment to defend Saudi Arabia as a partner but we also have the interests of Americans to look out for, and we have the possibility, however fragile, of moving toward a more enduring peace in Yemen. Again, that’s part of the recalibration of the relationship and we’re—applaud the work that Saudi Arabia has done to try to move this forward.
At the same time, we’re engaging constantly, including me in my own conversations with my Saudi counterparts, on human rights in Saudi Arabia itself, including individual cases as well as more systemic issues. Saudi Arabia is a critical partner to us in dealing with extremism in the region, in dealing with the challenges posed by Iran and also, I hope, in continuing the process of building relationships between Israel and its neighbors, both near and further away, through the continuation, the expansion, of the Abraham Accords.
So all of that is critical and, yes, energy, of course, is a critical piece to this, too. We want to make sure that there is sufficient supplies of energy on global markets at a time when this is being increasingly challenged, and we want to make sure that prices are held in check so that consumers don’t suffer, and Saudi Arabia is a critical player.
The point I’m making in a long, long way is we want to make sure that through the relationship we are addressing the totality of our interests in that relationship and, yes, that goes to values and it goes to human rights and democracy. It also goes to other interests that we have that are necessary for the well-being of the American people.
We’re trying to put all of that together and take a comprehensive approach to Saudi Arabia as we do with any other country. But I think you’ve seen over the last fifteen months or so a more effective recalibration that is making sure that our interests are front and center.
KURTZ-PHELAN: I’m going to ask you a very quick, more personal question while Sam prepares questions from members and readers. You’ve worked for at least two secretaries of state in the past. You’ve observed many more in your various jobs over the last couple of decades. What has surprised you about being in the actual chair? What are the challenges that you did not anticipate or fully appreciate when you were a staffer?
BLINKEN: So, you know, when I first started working for President Biden when he was in the Senate and he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Dan, I started with him back in 2002, and the job I held then was staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And when I started, someone told me very presciently, you know, there are two words in your title of staff director. Only one of them counts and it’s not director.
So, you know, like anyone who’s been in staff jobs for many, many years, making the transition in and of itself is kind of interesting. But I got to say it just gives you a greater appreciation for what those you’ve worked for and worked with for many years have to engage in every day because, ultimately, in any institution the buck stops somewhere. In this institution at the State Department it stops with me.
There’s a much bigger buck that stops at the desk of the president. But that’s a responsibility that I feel, that I feel strongly, and that is much more acute by actually sitting in the chair for however long I’m in it. So I’d say that’s probably the most important thing.
Now, having said that, I had one huge benefit coming into this job, which is I got to spend two years as John Kerry’s deputy during the Obama administration, and so watching him, seeing how he did the job up close virtually every single day as well as, of course, having had the opportunity to work in different ways with Secretary Clinton, Secretary Albright, but also to be inspired by, to read about people like Jim Baker, like George Shultz and Colin Powell, who I considered a friend and a tremendous source of advice over many years.
All of that just made a huge difference. But, like anything, you can be familiar with something academically. You can be familiar with it by seeing it up close. It’s always a little bit different when you’re actually doing it.
KURTZ-PHELAN: OK. Well, I will resist the temptation to ask follow-up questions, and, Sam, let’s go to some of the questions from folks on the line.
OPERATOR: Thank you so much.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question is from Bonnie Glaser, who asks: Are you concerned about possible Chinese efforts to provide material support to the Russian economy, either legally or illegally, as Russia’s economy weakens as a result of international sanctions?
BLINKEN: Bonnie, in short, the answer is yes and it’s something that President Biden brought up directly with President Xi when they spoke by video conference a couple of months ago as the—this was just when the Russian aggression started. We had warned our Chinese counterparts for some weeks that this was likely and, indeed, going to happen.
I think they were surprised, if not by Russia taking some actions, certainly, by the extent of that action, and one of the things that President Biden said to President Xi is we would look very unkindly at the prospect of China providing material support to Russia either on the military side or taking steps that, for example, undercut the sanctions that we would—we were compelled to impose on Russia as a result of its aggression in Ukraine.
I have to say, thus far, we have not seen from China any systematic effort to help Russia evade sanctions nor have we seen any significant military support from China to Russia. On the other hand, the so-called no limits partnership that President Xi and President Putin signaled just weeks before the Russian aggression, we, certainly, see aspects of that continuing, particularly, China continuing to advance Russia’s efforts politically and diplomatically, parroting some of the Russian propaganda, even amplifying it. I think that’s deeply unfortunate and, ultimately, I think it really risks doing damage to China’s reputation. China will have to make its own calculations about that.
One of the things that President Biden noted for President Xi when they spoke after the—some weeks after the aggression was this remarkable exodus of companies from Russia as a result of the aggression, seven (hundred), eight hundred companies, the leading brands from around the world, who didn’t want their reputations to be at risk by doing business in Russia, and, of course, doing business in Russia was also made more complicated by the sanctions. But the sanctions themselves didn’t drive this exit. It was really companies deciding on their own that they were not going to do business as usual in a country that was committing this kind of aggression.
That’s something, I think, that China also has to factor in as it thinks about its relationship with Russia, what support it does provide, as well as thinking about its own policies, going forward, in its more immediate neighborhood.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Sam, let’s go to the next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Anthony Richter, who asks, this month the U.N. Security Council must decide whether to renew the travel ban on Taliban leadership. Given a steady stream of Taliban decisions negatively affecting the rights of Afghan women, how will the U.S. approach this critical vote?
BLINKEN: Thank you. So with the Taliban takeover a few things happened at the same time. One of those was a U.N. Security Council resolution setting out the expectations of the international community for the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Those included, among other things, an expectation that it would continue to provide for freedom of travel so that people if they so choose could leave the country, that it would not countenance terrorism emanating from Afghanistan and would take steps to deal with it, and that it would uphold the rights—the basic rights of Afghans, including women and girls.
What we’ve seen in recent months has been, I think, a serious reverse gear on women and girls in particular. We’ve seen the lack of access to education for girls above the sixth grade. We’ve seen various requirements, including the imposition of wearing a veil on women and then penalizing their husbands or fathers if they—if they fail to do so. We’ve seen other restrictions on their ability to get an education, to work, to engage in society, including for example even commentators on television. So all of this goes directly counter to the expectations of the international community that are in a U.N. Security Council resolution. They also go against the expectations of the community that were expressed in many statements that the United States helped initiate, including with over a hundred signatories on one of these statements at the time of the Taliban takeover.
And what that says is that we’ve been very clear with the Taliban that to the extent they seek to have more normal relations with any country, including the United States, we have expectations that they will live up to commitments that they themselves made as well as, as I said, the expectations expressed by the international community. So we’ll see what happens in the—in the next couple of weeks, but I think the international community writ large, the United States in particular, has been very clear about what we’re looking for from the Taliban. And to the extent that they are not making good on those expectations and those commitments, that will have a real impact on the extent to which their relations with the rest of the world can be normalized in any way.
KURTZ-PHELAN: As a follow up on that, have the escalating warnings or fears of a worsening humanitarian crisis and food crisis in Afghanistan changed our assessment of how to approach these questions at all?
BLINKEN: Dan, I’d say two things on that.
First, even as we’ve made clear what our expectations are—and by the way, other expectations included access for humanitarian workers and humanitarian assistance, as well as a more inclusive and representative government—two things on this. We believe that whatever the profound differences we have with the Taliban and however they are falling—clearly falling short of the expectations that we’ve set and others have set, it’s hugely important that we do everything we can to make sure that humanitarian assistance gets to people in need in Afghanistan. We remain the leading provider of humanitarian assistance. We’ve worked very hard to make sure that that assistance could get to where it’s needed and that humanitarian organizations could function effectively in Afghanistan. They’re in the lead in doing that, but we want to make sure that, to the extent we can support that, we are. That includes, for example, issuing multiple licenses just to make crystal clear to countries and institutions around the world that the sanctions that remain in place are not designed in any way to block the provision of humanitarian assistance.
The second piece of this is broader, and it goes to the question of the relationship between what we’re doing on humanitarian assistance and, more broadly, what can be done so that irrespective of anything else Afghanistan has a basically functioning economy so that people have a little bit of money in their pockets and can provide what they need for themselves. And whether it’s a teacher, whether it’s a humanitarian aid worker, whether it’s a doctor, potentially whether it’s even a civil servant, there has to be a basically functioning economy. And we’ve been looking very hard at ways to do that that are not a direct benefit to the Taliban but that can bring benefits to the—to the people, and that’s something we’re working on very actively.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Sam, let’s get in one more quick question.
OPERATOR: Our last question is from Emerita Torres, who asks: Secretary Blinken, I believe your plan to modernize U.S. diplomacy is critical, including getting more Americans at home aware and involved in policy. How will the State Department’s institutional structure and practices change to facilitate this effort?
BLINKEN: Thank you. And I really appreciate the question because it is something of real, real focus for me, and that is the modernization agenda that we put out some months ago.
And you know, the story with these things is often the same. Secretaries come and go. They all have reform plans. They all seek in one way or another to change the department. We tried to be inspired by a lot of work that had already been done—and a lot of it has been done, including by the way by the Council in various reports—about how to make this department more—even more effective, more agile, more responsive to the needs of the American people, and more reflective of the country that we represent. We took those—that work to heart. We spent a lot of time talking to our own people about those questions. And of course, we consulted with Congress because there’s been a lot of good work done there over the years in thinking about how to strengthen the department.
And all of that came together in a modernization agenda that time doesn’t allow me to get into, but basically we’re focused on a few core things. Instead of having ninety-seven priorities, we’ve really just got a handful. One of those is making sure, for example, that our people have the tools in hand to do their jobs effectively in the 21st century. So we have a modernization agenda that goes to technology, but also goes to flexibility in the workplace. That, by the way, also makes sure that we can attract the best talent going forward because we’re in a competition for that talent with other parts of government, with the private sector. We want to make sure that what we have on offer is going to bring people into the department.
We’ve focused our efforts, as well, on critical issues that have not necessarily been the things that the department has been known for in the past, but that are actually critical to the well-being of Americans going forward like climate, like global health, like economics, and of course like dealing in the cyber and digital world. We just stood up a new bureau for cybersecurity and digital policy. We got that done in record time with strong support from Congress. We’re going to have a senior envoy in office to deal with emerging technology. At the same time, we’re working on strengthening what we—what we do on global health. And of course, we have John Kerry, who’s been leading our efforts on climate. We’re also building up everything that we do on economics because these are the things that are front and center that actually have an impact on American lives. And the department needs to be in a place where it’s attracting talent in those areas—again, areas that have not been necessarily right in the forefront of what we’re known for and seen to be doing—and that we generate talent, including in the way people are trained throughout their careers.
And then, finally, let me say this: It’s vitally important that we have a department that actually reflects the country that we represent. And this is not simply because and it is the right thing to do. It is certainly not an act of charity. It’s fundamentally because it’s the smart and necessary thing to do. We’re operating in, to state the obvious, an extraordinarily diverse world, and the comparative advantage that we bring to the table is having one of if not the most diverse countries on Earth. The idea that we would not bring the fullness of that diversity into the work we do at the department makes no sense. It shortchanges us in the world. It shortchanges our foreign policy. The ability to bring these different perspective(s) and experiences to bear that may give unique insights into how a diverse world is operating and affecting our interests, it would be a huge mistake to leave that off the playing field. At the same time as we’re grappling with problems, whatever they are, having that diversity of perspectives/opinion/experience, it’s going to come up with a better solution.
So we’ve been engaged in a—in a very significant effort to really and genuinely make sure we have a department that looks like—looks like America. We appointed the first chief diversity and inclusion officer in the department’s history. She and her team report directly to me. We have senior officials in every bureau responsible for this portfolio. We have a strategic plan that’ll be—that’ll be coming out very shortly, a five-year plan on how to do this. And part of that is actually starting at the very beginning of the pipeline, reaching out and engaging with communities that are underrepresented in the department and kind of opening their eyes and minds to the prospect of serving in government and hopefully serving at the State Department.
We now have, for the first time, paid internships. And that, in terms of the socioeconomic impact it’ll have on broadening the aperture to bring people in at the outset of their careers to test out whether they might want to come here, that’s going to have, I think, a significant impact.
There’s a lot to be said on this, but you know, I commend to those who are interested what we put out on the modernization agenda. But we’re determined that, you know, by the time we’re done here, we have a department that is even more responsive to the needs of the American people.
Last thing I’ll say is this: None of this is flipping a light switch. It is turning an aircraft carrier. It takes time, it takes sustained effort, and it’s not going to be done in two years or three years. But my hope is that as we’re doing these things we are helping the culture evolve in the department and we’re also creating an ongoing demand signal from everyone here that will continue through the next administration and the administration beyond that.
KURTZ-PHELAN: That is a great note to end on. Secretary Blinken, a huge thank you for joining us and helping us kick off what will be a series heading into the fall, and I will look forward to welcoming all of you back for subsequent events in the next few months. And again, Mr. Secretary, a huge thank you and best of luck in these intense months ahead.
BLINKEN: Dan, thank you very much and I really was glad to be able to join everyone today. And let me just close by saying we continue to look to, to be inspired by, to rely on the pages of Foreign Affairs. The number of times that, you know, I’ve read something there that has sparked an idea, helped create an initiative, given me a good argument and very constructive criticism, I can’t even count them. This is so vital to what we do. It’s vital to our democracy. It’s vital to our conduct of foreign policy.
So all I can say is this: It’s great to celebrate these hundred years, but even more important are the next one hundred years. And I’m just grateful that we’re all joined in this—in this journey today. So thank you for everything you’re doing. Thank you to everyone who contributes to Foreign Affairs, to everyone who edits it, to everyone who reads it.
KURTZ-PHELAN: We will hope to persuade you to create some more room on your bookshelves for future issues. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Thanks, all, for joining. Have a good afternoon.
BLINKEN: Thanks very much.
Mentioned in this discussion:
“The False Crisis Over the Atlantic” by Antony J. Blinken (2001)
“The Sources of Soviet Conduct” by George F. Kennan (1947)
“Worlds of Color” by W.E.B. Du Bois (1925)
“Who Will Control the Internet?” by Kenneth Neil Cukier (2005)