Antony Blinken on the global challenges facing America
FT editor Roula Khalaf interviews US secretary of state who explains how America and its allies must engage China from a position of strength, working with international organisations and 'investing in ourselves'
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Antony Blinken, good to see you and thanks for being with us at The Global Boardroom.
Great to join you, thank you.
Let's start with the pandemic. The US wants to lead the global response to Covid-19. We always hear that. But at the same time there have been criticism that one, you're not sharing patents. Two, there is an effective ban on exports of some raw materials that are needed for vaccines production elsewhere.
And there's also been criticism of Washington's response to the horrendous situation right now in India, where China, Russia, others, have really been ahead at least in speaking out and in trying to help. So, my question to you is are you leading in the way that you would want? And is China winning in vaccine diplomacy?
Well, I think we are leading. And I think we're going to be leading increasingly effectively because let's step back for one second to look at what we've done, but also, critically where we're going. On day one of this administration, President Biden put us back into the World Health Organization, which is critical.
And of course we are now the leading contributor in the world to COVAX, the facility that makes vaccines available particularly to low and middle income countries. $2bn invested. Another $2bn between now and the end of 2022 as other countries step up. And, of course, that's not as obvious in some ways or not as a direct, it doesn't seem to have an American flag on it. But it is a critical vehicle for making available vaccines.
There have been some challenges with COVAX. It's been underfunded to date. And, of course, India had been a primary supplier and for obvious reasons that's been pulled back. But COVAX remains an important facility. In addition, besides that, we've worked closely with partners in the so-called quad, with Australia, with Japan, and India, to find other ways to increase vaccine production and access over time.
We made some initial contributions, loans, to our closest land neighbours, Canada and Mexico. And now that our population has full access to vaccines, we are in a place where with some of the vaccines that we've contracted for, including the AstraZeneca vaccines, of which there are about 60m, we'll be able to move out and make those available.
We share this conviction, no one in the world will be fully safe until, in effect, everyone is. And as long as the virus is replicating somewhere it could be mutating. And as long as it's mutating it could come back to bite anyone, including the United States. So, we're really leaning into this.
So, you are starting to lean into this now. But would it have made sense, months ago, for the US and for other countries, including the UK, to say we're going to vaccinate our populations, all of those let's say over 40. And then we're going to start sharing with the rest of the world. Rather than we're going to vaccinate as much as possible, as quickly as possible, and then, if we've got leftovers, we'll give them away.
Well, you know, I think everyone has an obligation and feels an obligation to vaccinate their own populations. But beyond that, just as it's necessary for our own security and well-being, to see the rest of the world vaccinated, so is it important for the security and well-being of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated. This works in both directions. And I think we've had to do both. Now, we're in a position where I believe we can.
So, we're putting in place a process for the vaccines we've contracted for that can be made available. But also, critically, looking at ways that we can ramp up production with other countries around the world so that there is a constant and growing supply. We also don't know what some of the contingencies are going to be, going forward. Are people going to need booster shots at some point? As younger people are able to get the vaccine, we have to provide for them. All of that's being factored in.
And then maybe a word about India because it's so, so important. This has touched Americans profoundly because we have, as does the UK, such deep connections to India, to the Indian people, and we've seen the images, we've talked to colleagues and friends.
We've made a very significant effort, very quickly, to try to get to India as much as we could of what it needs most critically in this moment, oxygen supplies, the various things that go into to holding and distributing oxygen, PPE, therapeutics, precursors to the extent that they're needed for vaccines. All of that has started to flow. We're in direct regular contact with our counterparts from India.
Beyond that, what I've seen is an amazing mobilisation, not just of the United States government, but of our private sector and of Indian-Americans as well. I was on a call a week ago with virtually every leading CEO, it was a who's who, all wanting to help. And the government, our government, is co-ordinating those efforts. So, we are doing everything we can. India came to our assistance early on, in our hour of need when we were having real struggles with Covid-19, providing millions and millions, for example, of protective masks. We remember that and we're determined to do everything we can to help now.
Let me ask you, President Biden said in his speech to Congress last month that he hears from other world leaders that they're happy to see the US back but they often ask for how long. How are you dealing with such concerns and what are you hearing from your counterparts?
Well, you know I've heard some of the same thing. I've heard a profound satisfaction that we are back, that we are engaged, that we're working closely with allies, and partners, and others, both on a direct bilateral basis but also through institutions. Multilateralism, as it's called in the lingo of foreign policy. And sure, there's a question about the durability. I understand that.
But I think that the more we can show success, the more we can show especially to our own people that this kind of engagement, this kind of work with other countries, is actually delivering results for them. The more we're going to be able to sustain that going forward. That really is the, I think, the challenge. If we demonstrate that our kind of engaged foreign policy is making a real difference in the lives of our fellow citizens, they're going to support that and they're going to support that going forward, irrespective of who's president.
Let's talk about China, the biggest strategic challenge that the US now faces. You laid out your positions, both you and the Chinese in Alaska, and the US said it's going to stand up to its values, the Chinese weren't too happy with that and said they wouldn't accept interference in the core issues, whether it's Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang. What did you learn in Alaska about the Chinese approach that you may not have known?
I'm not sure we learned anything new about their approach and we did after the public fireworks have about eight or 10 hours of very direct conversation covering a whole series of issues. The adversarial, the competitive, and the co-operative, because all three are features of our relationship. But we wanted to have an opportunity to speak directly and clearly to our Chinese counterparts just so that there are no misunderstandings and no miscommunication especially about what we're all about.
And the case that we made to them is as follows. We are not about trying to contain China or to hold China down. What we are about is upholding the international rules-based order, that we've invested so much in over many decades, that has served us well, but not just us. We think for all its imperfections, it's served the world pretty well, including, by the way, China.
And anyone who takes action that would disrupt that order, that would challenge that order, that would seek to undermine it, we're going to stand up and protect it. So, to your points, when China says to us things that we complain about whether it's Xinjiang and the egregious treatment of uighurs, or whether it's Taiwan, or whether it's Tibet, or whether it's Hong Kong, that these are internal matters, they don't regard us. That's simply not true.
When it comes to Xinjiang, for example, China signed on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations. When it is not...
Well a lot of countries signed up to the Declaration of Human Rights and you know...
Well, that's the point. But our point is we take this seriously. And this is part of the rules-based order. And if you're not going to abide by your commitments, we're going to say something about it and we have the right to.
I'm interested in what happens next? And what are you hoping to accomplish this year, for example?
Look, we're engaged with China in a whole variety of places on a variety of issues as part of the normal course of doing business. We're engaged with them right now on Iran and the effort to return to compliance with the JCPOA. There are going to be no doubt discussions about North Korea and its nuclear programme going forward. We're talking about climate. President Xi has participated in President Biden's climate summit.
There are a whole series of areas where we have clearly overlapping interests. And we're engaged. But beyond that, we want the engagement that we have with China to be results oriented and practically focused on getting things done, not just talk for the sake of talk. That's what we're focused on.
One thing that you have said is that the US wants to rebuild to demonstrate the resilience of its own democracy and then approach China from a position of strength. I'm still trying to figure out what the end goal is. You said, it's not to contain China. But do you think that you can convince China to actually change its behaviour?
I think in some areas, particularly when it's not just the United States, it is countries around the world that feel aggrieved by some practise that China is engaged in, coming together, that stands a much better chance. Let's just take economic and commercial issues, for example. When it's the United States alone complaining about them, we're 25 per cent of world GDP.
If we're working closely with other similarly aggrieved countries, mostly democracies, that might well be 40 per cent, 50 per cent, 60 per cent of world GDP. That's a lot harder for China to ignore. And we've seen in the past when countries that have been unhappy about the conduct of the government in Beijing on a particular issue actually engage in it together, we're more likely to get China to make changes.
I don't want to exaggerate the prospects but, at the very least, countries should be standing up in defence of a rules-based order that has served all of us very well.
You've talked about alliances and the fact that you want to work with allies and to co-ordinate sanctions and other measures. China can wield a lot of economic pressure. And we've seen that play out, where countries that feel that they are trapped between the US and China, including in Europe. Are you confident that you can get people on your side without them having to succumb to Chinese pressure?
Well, a couple of things. First, we're not asking countries to choose. We recognise that countries have complicated relationships, including with China, including economic relationships, and the issue is not that those need to be cut off or ended. But there are certain basic criteria, there are certain basic rules, that all of us, we think, should abide by.
And in particular, when it comes to trade and commerce we want to see a race to the top, not a race to the bottom, when it comes to basic investment standards, when it comes to making sure that we're paying mind to the environment, when we're making sure that we're protecting the rights of workers, when we're protecting intellectual property and technology theft.
All of those things need to be front and centre. But that's not inconsistent with countries engaging with China, but we want to see them engaging, as I said, to a high standard, not a low standard and that's profoundly in their interest. Again, when countries are doing that together it's more likely that China will have to play by those rules, not rules it arbitrarily sets, that proved to be a race to the bottom, not the top.
There's a lot of Cold war rhetoric and a lot of people are assuming that we have entered now into a new Cold war and making comparisons with the Soviet Union. Would you describe the current situation as a new Cold war?
I resist putting labels on most relationships, including this one because it's complex. And as I said, if you look at it we've seen unfortunately in recent years the government in Beijing acting more repressively at home and more aggressively abroad. And when I look at the relationship I see adversarial aspects, I see competitive aspects, I see cooperative aspects, all three.
And what we've said, and what we believe strongly, is whatever aspect we're looking at, we have to be able to engage China from a position of strength. And that means a few things. It means actually working with allies and partners, not disparaging them, that is a position of strength. It means leaning in and engaging in the vast array of multilateral and international organisations because that's where so many of the rules are made, that's where the norms are shaped. And if we're not leaning in, we know that Beijing is likely to be trying to do so in our place.
And it means critically, and maybe most critically, actually investing in ourselves. Investing in our own people, in our workers, in our technology, in our infrastructure. If we do that, then I think we're going to be fine.
Do you think companies should be preparing for possible conflict with China over Taiwan?
Look, we've had over many years, consistent with the One China Policy, consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act, the three communiques, the six assurances, all of this language that you hear, the bottom line is we've managed Taiwan I think quite well and quite effectively. What is very troubling and very concerning is that Beijing seems to be taking a different approach, acting aggressively, and I think that we are committed to making sure that Taiwan has the means to defend itself, that commitment is not going away.
And at the same time I think it would be a very serious mistake for anyone to try to disrupt by force the existing status quo.
OK. So, let me ask you this. Do you think that US companies should be sponsoring the Beijing Olympics?
We're still a ways away from the Beijing Olympics, something that we'll look at in the months ahead. We'll certainly talk to other countries, to allies and partners, to get their perspective but that's not something we focused on yet.
Yet to the US democracy summit there are sort of two views of this in Europe. One is that this will be very helpful, especially vis a vis China. The other is that what you're doing is carving up the world into blocks, and to go back to our Cold war question, initiating a new Cold war.
So, this is not about initiating a Cold war. This is all about doing our part to make sure that democracy is strong, resilient, and meeting the needs of its people. You know what we've seen over the last 15 years is unfortunately something of a democratic recession around the world. Countries falling back on the basic metrics of democracy.
The United States has had its own challenges, visible for the world to see, when it comes to democracy. So, we think this is... President Biden thinks this is an important moment for democracies to come together, think together, reason together, and ultimately act together. A big part of this is going to be looking at ourselves and the challenges that we face, and ultimately how we can be more effective in delivering for our citizens because that is the test.
And when you hear autocracies challenging democracies, the argument they're making is they can't deliver, we're delivering more effectively, we're delivering more efficiently. We have to be able to answer that question with conviction and with confidence that, no, the system that we believe in is more effective in making a real difference in the lives of our citizens. So, a big part of this conversation is going to be talking about ways we can do that better.
We mentioned human rights before and obviously you personally have made a huge commitment on human rights. But a lot of people would say that they see tough rhetoric but not so tough action. For example, you have said that you would have to work and that you will work with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, even though the administration published the report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which clearly states that the Crown Prince was ultimately responsible.
So, should we imagine that the Crown Prince will one day be invited to the White House, for example?
Well, to my knowledge the Crown Prince has no plans anytime soon to come to the United States. But pause for one second on that question. And you mentioned that already. We put out a report with the imprimatur of the United States making clear responsibility for the heinous murder of Mr Khashoggi. And of course, this had been reported in the news, in the FT, among other places.
It's not that there was necessarily anything new factually, but to have that with the imprimatur of the United States behind it, I think, in and of itself was meaningful. Second of course, we sanctioned a number of people and entities that were directly involved in Mr Khashoggi's murder. But beyond that we put in place a new rule, a new system, to make sure to the best of our ability that anyone who would seek to repress, or threaten, or do harm to people speaking out against their country from the United States we'd make sure that they no longer had the benefit of being in the United States, and not just with regard to Saudi Arabia, across the board.
But when we're thinking about how do we advance our values, not just our interests, but our values. One strong value we have, as well as an interest, is ending the war in Yemen, which is the worst humanitarian situation in the world, and that's speaking volumes right now. Well, we need some help from Saudi Arabia to do that. Are we better off in terms of advancing that value, totally cutting off the relationship with Saudi Arabia or trying to recalibrate it, as we've done. Making clear what is acceptable and what's not but also continuing to work with them.
I think we're better off making sure we can find ways to work together, consistent with our values.
So, one of the more recent developments is that the Saudis and the Iranians appear to be talking. We broke a story about a week ago. Is that something that you've encouraged?
Specifically? No. But generally, if they're talking...
If they're talking? You can't tell me?
Well, I don't want to speak for them. But if they're talking, I think that's generally a good thing. Talking is usually better than the alternative. Does it lead to results? That's another question. But talking, trying to take down tensions, trying to see if there's a modus vivendi, trying to get countries to take actions on things they're doing that you don't like, that's good. That's positive.
And look, we have, I think, still when we're acting at our best, a greater ability than any other country to mobilise others in positive collective action. But if countries are talking directly together without us in the middle, that's maybe even better.
Let's talk about Iran. There are elections, presidential elections coming up. And it does look like a hard liner will be elected president. Now, not to exaggerate the role of a president or of a foreign minister in Iran but how is that going to affect the indirect negotiations that are now underway?
Well, it's very hard to predict, and certainly I don't want to get into hypotheticals about what one outcome or another in Iran's elections, what impact that would or wouldn't have on any nuclear negotiations. And to your point, I think it's clear who the decider is in the Iranian system and that's the Supreme Leader and he's the one who has to make the fundamental decisions about what Iran's approach would be.
We've had serious discussions in Vienna that have gone on now for several weeks. I think we've seen some progress at least in demonstrating the seriousness with which the United States takes the effort to return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA. We still have a long way to go, if we're going to get anywhere. And in particular, we still have to see whether Iran is willing and able to make the necessary decisions on its part for returning to compliance.
And I think as one of my colleagues said the other day, there is more road yet to go than road that's been travelled. So, let's see where we get.
President Putin relishes an acknowledgment of his status as one of the world's most powerful leaders. Why is President Biden offering to meet him and has he spoken to Angela Merkel, who tried very hard to engage with President Putin but found that he lied to her consistently?
First, the president has spoken to Angela Merkel on several occasions and of course spoke to her along with President Obama regularly some years ago, including when Russia invaded Ukraine. And so we well know the challenges that are posed by engaging with President Putin.
But President Biden believes very strongly that it's important to be clear and direct and one of the best ways to do that is actually meeting face to face. He's had a couple of conversations with President Putin on the phone now. And there's no secret. He has said to him, including from before he was elected president, he's been very clear that if Russia engages in reckless aggressive actions, we will respond. On the other hand, we do not seek to escalate.
We'd prefer to have a more predictable relationship with Russia but that is up to Mr Putin. And if Russia continues to take reckless and aggressive actions, it can be sure we will respond again. I think it's beneficial also for the two presidents to be able to speak directly face to face. There are also areas where it's in our mutual interest to co-operate. We've already seen one of them and that was the extension of the new START Treaty.
There are other areas in the so-called strategic stability realm where maybe progress can be made. But diplomacy is all about actually engaging directly and, you know, I've always been struck as a diplomat, people sometimes seem to think that's a problematic thing or some sign of weakness. Just because you engage with someone doesn't take the word 'no' out of your vocabulary.
Secretary Blinken, thank you for your time. I hope to see you soon in person.
Thanks very much, Roula. Great to be with you.