Welcome, everyone. And on behalf of the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, welcome back to those of you who just watched the first half of our fourth annual Vandenberg Lecture, and welcome to those of you who are just tuning in. I’m John Ciorciari, an associate professor here at the Ford School and director of our Weiser Diplomacy Center, which is co-sponsoring today’s events, along with the university’s Democracy and Debate initiative and Detroit Public Television.
In the past hour, my colleague, Dean Michael Barr, spoke with Senator Chris Coons about the war in Ukraine and about forging a new foreign policy consensus in Washington. I now have the great pleasure of introducing a special guest to continue the conversation with a focus on diplomacy: United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
I’ll keep this very brief so that we can get quickly to his insights.
Antony Blinken is the 71st Secretary of State and has been a leader in shaping U.S. foreign policy over three decades and over three presidential administrations. Among other senior roles, he served as deputy secretary of state between 2015 and ’17, as President Obama’s principal deputy national security advisor before that, and also as a senior director at the National Security Council, as a senior official at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and elsewhere at the State Department, including a start to his career focused on European affairs, which will be a particular focus of today’s conversation.
I’m joined in this conversation by Dean Barr and a classroom full of very excited Ford School students, including three of whom will join us here on the chairs to ask some questions of their own.
With that, please join me in welcoming Secretary Blinken to the fourth annual Vandenberg Lecture and to the Ford School. (Applause.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: John, thank you. Thank you very, very much. And it’s wonderful to be with you. It’s great to see my friend Michael. We go back a long ways to the days of the Clinton administration, but really wonderful to see you there.
I just want to acknowledge a few people at the outset, particularly the president, Mary Sue Coleman. Grateful for her support for so much of what we do. There are a few people who have been involved with you either now or very recently who are – have been good friends or close colleagues. Carol Giacomo, former member of the New York Times editorial board who’s at the Weiser Diplomacy Center who’s a terrific friend and colleague.
I think either with you today or tuning in today is another friend and colleague and someone for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect and appreciation, and that’s Steve Biegun, who was the deputy secretary of state here. We’ve been colleagues for a long time. I know that he is a Michigan grad, Michigan dad, and I think soon to be a Michigan professor again. So it’s great to be with Steve, even virtually.
And one of the things that I also have a deep appreciation for is the work that we’re doing together between the State Department and the university. We have the Diplomacy Lab, which is I think a great initiative that really puts together students with foreign policy practitioners to try to solve concrete problems and bringing new ideas to us, new insights to us, and we’re really thankful for that collaboration.
We have a Diplomat in Residence in Shannon Farrell, who’s there as well.
Now, part of this is all part of a very devious plot, which is to try to encourage folks from Michigan to think about making a career in diplomacy, in foreign policy, maybe even here at the State Department. We want to do everything that we possibly can to open your eyes, open your minds to that possibility. And so through some of these initiatives, through some of the people that have been involved in the university, I hope that that happens.
I just want to say a couple of things at the outset, and I’m really eager to get to questions and conversation with each of you.
There’s obviously been, and remains, a huge focus on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and I suspect we’ll have a chance to talk about that. But one of the challenges that we have, one of the obligations that we have, is to make sure that even as we’re focused relentlessly on something like this aggression, we’re also doing the rest of our business and that we are carrying out the responsibilities that we have to try to advance America’s interests and values in the world, day in, day out.
I have a really hackneyed acronym that I’ve been using with my team here, what is ROW, R-O-W, “rest of world.” We can’t lose sight of that even as we’re dealing with something as all-consuming as Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. And in fact, we are ROWing, and I’d just point to a couple of quick things to demonstrate that this department is working around the world, around the clock.
Just in the last couple of weeks, thanks to American diplomacy, determined American diplomacy – sometimes quiet, but effective – we helped get a ceasefire in Ethiopia, which after many, many, many months where, among many other things, humanitarian assistance was not getting through, particularly to the northern part of the country in Tigray, that is now moving again. It’s fragile, but it’s a start.
Yemen – a horrific war, one of the worst in the world for the last almost decade – American diplomacy helped get a truce. And again, fragile, but that could lead to a more enduring ceasefire. Already we’re starting to see humanitarian assistance flow again. My hope would be that we create a foundation for negotiation that leads to the end, finally, of that conflict. We’re a ways from that, but it – that is happening.
Just a couple of weeks ago, more or less unnoticed, we got our 500 millionth dose of COVID-19 vaccine around the world. We’re on our way to donating 1.2 billion vaccine doses by the end of this year, doing it primarily through this thing called COVAX, which makes sure that it’s done equitably, that those who need it and can’t afford it are getting it. We do it with no political strings attached, unlike some other countries out there. That’s happening too, and a lot of American diplomacy and effort goes into that.
We got a couple people who are being illegally detained in Afghanistan out just a few days ago, an American citizen and a legal permanent resident who’s a British national.
So I say all of that to illustrate the fact that even as the world is focused and we’re focused on Ukraine, a lot is also going on every single day to try and advance our interests around the world.
And finally this: The bread and butter of this institution for many, many years has been dealing when necessary with great power competition. And of course, we had that throughout the Cold War; we have that now in different ways with Russia, with China, which I suspect we’ll talk about. And that remains at the heart of what we do.
So do issues of peace and security, of trying to resolve conflicts, prevent conflicts. But as important, we are focused – and have to be – on the issues that are having a profound impact on the lives of our fellow citizens every single day. And whether that is global health and COVID-19, whether that’s climate and the existential crisis we face, whether it is emerging technologies that more than anything else are shaping lives, we’re making sure that this department is really acting in the 21st century in ways that are addressing the needs of the American people.
Just in the past couple of weeks, I cut the ribbon on a new bureau in the department for cyber security and digital policy so that our department is helping to advance our efforts around the world in making sure that as these policies are being shaped we’re not only at the table, we’re leading the conversation. And we’ll soon have a senior envoy to deal with emerging technology, to make sure that as the norms and standards and rules that are being set around the world for how these technologies are used, we’re in the lead on that effort.
As we speak, my illustrious predecessor, now the President’s Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry, along with our Assistant Secretary Monica Medina, is in Palau for the Our Oceans Conference to advance efforts that we’re making on climate and on the environment. And so we’re very focused on that.
As I mentioned, we continue to get vaccine doses out there, but more than that, we’re bringing countries together, mobilizing them to deal with the gaps that exist around the world in getting vaccines, getting shots into arms, as well as trying to build back better a global health system that can deal more effectively with the next pandemic, because we’ll be facing one.
So in all of these ways and more, including on economics, which is so foundational to everything we do, we’re making sure that we have a department that is fit for purpose to actually deal with the challenges that we’re facing around the world that are having an impact on the lives of Americans.
And the last thing I’ll say is this. We are eager for some of you I hope who are listening to come and be a part of this. One of the things that is so essential for our country going forward, for our place in the world, is to make sure that new generations come in, come into the department, lead our efforts, put their minds, put their energies, put their passions to America and the world and to doing what we can to advance the interests that we have and the values that we share.
So I hope through the work that you’re doing at Michigan, through some of the experiences you’ll have, some of you at least will be led in this direction. I can tell you you’ll have a very welcoming place to do it. So come on down to Washington. (Laughter.)
MR CIORCIARI: Thank you very much, Secretary Blinken. And I’d like to turn to our first student questioner. Hannah Kraus is a second-year master of public policy student and one of our Weiser diplomacy fellows. And so Hannah, please.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for being here. I wanted to ask a question related to Ukraine. Watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfold has brought to mind another act of Russian aggression with particular significance to me and my family: the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. At the age of 18, my father watched Soviet tanks roll into his city of Prague to crush the liberalizing reforms of the Prague Spring. This event eventually brought him to the U.S., where he declared asylum, where he met my mother, and where I was born. For my family and for many others in Central and Eastern Europe, these are the memories, fears, and traumas that the current Russian invasion of Ukraine invokes.
Now as the fighting in Ukraine shifts to the Donbas region, what are the limits and possibilities for how the U.S. approach could adapt?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Hannah, thank you. Thanks for sharing that, first of all. And I’ve got to tell you, that resonates with me powerfully, just on a personal level. Like you, I had family that, in one way or another, are relatively recent arrivals to the country, and in ways similar to yours. My grandfather fled pogroms in what is now Ukraine at the turn of the last century. My stepmother fled Hungary and fled communists in Hungary before – a couple of decades before the Prague Spring. So – and came to America. And I have a late stepfather who survived concentration camps during World War II and was liberated by the United States.
So what you say resonates deeply with me, and in fact it motivates a lot of what I do and think about and try to act on.
When it comes to what we’re seeing now in this Russian aggression against Ukraine, there are a lot of things going on. It’s hard to get it down into a short conversation. But let me just highlight a few things.
First, we of course have what is literally being done to people in Ukraine every single day, which is the brutalization of the country in ways that are increasingly being revealed to the world. We saw the images that came out of Bucha just about a week ago. As the Russian tide was being pushed back from different parts of Ukraine, we have seen what’s left in its wake. And it’s horrifying. People executed with their hands tied behind their backs. Bodies left in the streets. Buildings reduced to rubble. Atrocities committed, as we know from those who experienced them, in the most terrible ways. And I’m afraid to say that as this moves forward, the world is probably almost certainly going to see more of that. And Bucha may have simply been a prelude to many horrors yet to be revealed. So that’s very motivating in what we’re doing in trying to stop this war, and I’ll come to that very quickly in a second.
But there’s another aggression going on. And that’s an aggression against some of the basic principles that undergird the international system that are necessary to try to keep peace and security around the world – principles that evolved from two world wars, that were enshrined in the UN Charter, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all sorts of founding documents at the end of the Second World War that were designed to try to make sure to the best of our ability that something like this wouldn’t happen again.
And some of those principles – like the idea that one country can’t simply assert that might makes right and change the borders of another by force; that one country can’t simply dictate to another its policies, its choices, its future; that one country can’t exert a sphere of influence to try to subjugate a neighbor or neighbors to its will; that one country can’t simply deny the very existence of another, its independence, its sovereignty – all of those principles are also being aggressed by Russia in Ukraine. And that’s why it’s been so important for us to stand up not only in defense of Ukraine, but also in defense of those principles. Because if we allow them to be violated with impunity, it opens a Pandora’s box not just in Europe, but potentially in every place around the world where others are watching and taking note and taking lessons.
So that gets to what we’re doing about it. And here there are a lot of things that have gone into – gone into our consideration. But principally, we are doing a lot to help Ukraine effectively defend itself. We’re putting extraordinary and unprecedented pressure on Russia, and we’re shoring up the NATO Alliance to make sure that countries in that Alliance are properly defended against the threat of even more Russian aggression directed at them.
When it comes to Ukraine, the extraordinary courage of the Ukrainians is what’s at the heart of what they’ve been able to do, in ways that I think many people would not have expected. But while that’s at the heart of it, part of the reason that they’ve been able to be as effective as they are is because we have supported them and supplied them going back well before Russia committed this aggression. If you go back to last summer, President Biden initiated the first of what are now more than half a dozen what we call drawdowns of military equipment. So this goes back to the end of last summer, well before the aggression. Another very significant one over Christmas – again, before the aggression – so that when Russia did go in, the Ukrainians had in their hands some of the tools that they needed to push back. And part of the reason they’ve had success to date in pushing the Russians away from Kyiv and back toward the east is precisely because they had this.
Just yesterday, the President did another drawdown of almost a billion dollars, $800 million, in the kinds of things that Ukraine needs to effectively defend itself. We’ve been focused on making sure that to the best of our ability, we and others can get into Ukrainian hands as quickly as possible the kinds of things that they can use effectively as quickly as possible. Now we’re looking at doing other things that may require, for example, some training, because some of the things that Ukrainians have asked for, they’re not yet trained on. We’re looking and working on all of that.
Second has been this unprecedented pressure on Russia. Again, going back to last fall when we saw this aggression looming and mounting, we warned – I warned – that if Russia did it, there would be massive consequences, including unprecedented sanctions. I’m not sure that people fully took that at face value. Well, I think that we’ve demonstrated that we were dead serious about it. And what we have seen, what we have done in coordination with countries around the world, is unprecedented. And the pressure it’s exerting against Russia is very, very real.
We’ve seen an economy that is now pretty much wiping out all the gains of the last 15 years. Most forecasts suggest that Russia will contract by 15 percent or more over the next – between now and the end of the year.
We have seen something else that’s been quite remarkable and that was not the direct product of our sanctions but I think was a product of the isolation that we’ve helped induce, and that is an exodus of virtually every leading company from Russia.
And finally, the export controls that we’ve put in place – again, in coordination with many other countries – over time are going to have a real bite because they’re going to deny Russia the technology that it needs to effectively modernize key industries, including defense. It’s going to make it a lot harder for Russia to do these kinds of things in the future.
And finally, as I said, we’ve been in ways that we haven’t seen before shoring up our own NATO Alliance.
Having said all of that, the President has to make sure that he is looking out for the interests of the American people. One of those interests is making sure to the best of our ability that we don’t get into direct conflict with Russia, that we avoid doing things that could lead to a wider war. We want to end this war, end the Russian aggression, not broaden it out in ways that would be good for no one.
So we’re resolutely committed to NATO and to our Article 5 obligations, to making sure that any aggression against any inch of NATO territory is defended against and protected. We will continue to do everything we can for Ukrainians to make sure they have the means in their hands to defend themselves and ultimately to strengthen their position at some eventual negotiated diplomatic resolution. The hard part is – look, I know this much: A sovereign, independent Ukraine is going to be around a lot longer than Vladimir Putin. The hard part is that there will – the death and destruction that continues to take place is truly horrific. We’re trying to do everything we can to help bring this war to an end as quickly as we possibly can, but we’re also prepared for this to go on for some time.
MR CIORCIARI: Thank you. And Secretary Blinken – thank you, Hannah, for your excellent question.
Secretary Blinken, I want to ask a follow-up on the diplomatic response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Chris Coons pointed out in the last hour that while the response has been strong from NATO and EU partners, the response globally has been much more varied. Dozens of countries have abstained from votes condemning Russia at the UN General Assembly, as you know, and many have dragged their feet on implementing sanctions in alignment with the United States and its closest partners. What can the U.S. Government do to most effectively elicit stronger support from countries in regions like the Middle East, Africa, or South Asia, who allege either that participation in the sanctions would challenge norms of nonalignment or who accuse the United States of double standards in its response to Ukraine vis-à-vis other conflicts?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So John, first of all, I’m really, really glad that you had Chris Coons with you earlier today. He is not only a great partner, he’s a terrific friend, and beyond that he is one of the strongest, wisest voices that we have on foreign policy in this country, and he is a remarkable leader in the Senate. I think you heard from him as well some of the partnerships that he has, including for example with Senator Graham, where on a bipartisan basis they are helping to advance our foreign policy. And it’s something that I deeply appreciate, so I’m glad you heard from Chris.
Look, there are a lot of things going on here, and it’s a moving picture. It’s not a still shot. And it’s important to look at that moving picture. You note rightly that in a number of these votes, for example at the United Nations, that some countries abstained on critical votes. Well, in some cases an abstention is a significant step beyond a no vote, a rejection. So we’ve moved a number of countries in a number of places from no to abstain. That in and of itself in this international system that we deal with says something, and it says something to other countries too.
Going back to the very first significant vote, 141 countries from every continent voted to have their voices heard against the Russian aggression and in support of Ukraine. And that is really the foundation, and that spoke volumes in and of itself. We had a successful vote recently that suspended Russia from its participation in the UN Human Rights Council. Again, a lot of countries taking part in that.
But having said that, we have to recognize some realities. A number of countries have had longstanding, decades-long relationships with Russia. Some of them have built up within that strong defense relationships where they’ve been dependent on Russia for defense equipment and technology. Moving away from that takes time. It’s not like flipping a light switch. It’s a transition. In some cases, when those relationships developed we were not in a position to do the same thing ourselves. Now we may be, and in some cases now we are.
And so part of this is about giving people a choice – not forcing a choice, giving them a choice – and then working on that over time. But it is in some cases turning around an aircraft carrier. It takes time. We have to be smart about it, patient about it. Some countries will come to the assistance of Ukraine when it comes to humanitarian assistance, but not security assistance. Some countries will vote one way or another way. But we’re working to bring countries along on different aspects of this.
The second point is this – and you’re right about this as well – different parts of the world, different countries are experiencing this in different ways. And they’re experiencing it in the context sometimes of their histories. They’re experiencing it in the context of recent history as well, including for example, places where we’ve intervened in the past, and they raise very legitimate questions about how what’s happening now and Ukraine fits with that, and I’m happy to get into that. But I think what we’ve been clear about is this: There are times when – even though we usually deal with shades of gray, there are times when there really is black and white. And in this case, we have a clear aggressor, and we have a clear victim, and countries should take account of that.
Second, we all, in our better days, try to adhere to the principles of the UN Charter. This is clearly an aggression against those very principles that countries should want to see upheld, especially by a permanent member of the Security Council – Russia, in this case.
But third – and this is what we really have to be attentive to and focused on – this aggression is having consequences way beyond Europe in people’s lives. Commodity prices have gone up dramatically. Food scarcity, food prices in particular – I was in Morocco and Algeria recently. This is what’s being felt there.
Now, that’s not as a result of our sanctions; it’s as a result of Russia’s aggression. Quite literally, Ukrainian farmers, instead of dealing with their crops, have to choose between fighting or fleeing. Russians are blockading Ukrainian ports so that the wheat – of which, as you know, Ukraine is one of the world’s leading suppliers – to the extent it can actually get to market can’t get out of the country, because ships are not allowed to leave from Black Sea ports. Farms are literally being intentionally bombarded by the Russians so that they can’t produce.
So we’re doing a number of things to be attentive to the fact that people around the world are suffering from this, including making sure that the leading organizations that work to provide food to countries and people who need it like the World Food Program at the UN, the Food and Agricultural Organization, that they’re better resourced, because the price of doing business has just gone up for them. We’re trying to make sure that countries that have large stockpiles of food, from China and India, are releasing some of that to the world market. We’re trying to make sure that our own producers of fertilizer are incentivized to produce more, to get more out there, because if there’s a shortage of fertilizer or it’s priced out of the market for too many farmers, we know that yields next year are going to go down, supply will go down, prices will go up.
So in all of these ways, we’re working to actually engage the problem as it’s having an actual impact on other countries, and that’s coloring the position that they’re taking on this. And of course, finally, our diplomats are engaged every single day trying to deal with the challenges this is posing for other countries, and hopefully, bringing them along to the position that we have.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR BARR: Thank you very much, Secretary Blinken. I’m honored to introduce you to our next student who’s joining us up here today, second year master of public policy student of Maheen Zahid. So please, Maheen, take it from here.
QUESTION: Good afternoon, Secretary Blinken.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Afternoon.
QUESTION: I’m interested in international relations and foreign policy, so I’m so thrilled that you could join us today.
So my question to you is about refugee resettlement. Over the last few years, Europe has said that it is facing refugee crisis. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, European nations open their borders to accept Ukrainian refugees. Here in the States, ever since the withdrawal from Afghanistan in September of last year, around 70,000 Afghans were accepted – that too, not as refugees, but on humanitarian parole. President Biden recently announced that the U.S. would accept up to 100,000 refugees from Ukraine. How is it easier to welcome refugees in this case, and has the comparative swiftness with which Ukrainian refugees were and will be absorbed informed how the U.S. and its allies are now thinking about their own refugee policies?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. It’s a great question, but first let me say thank you for or letting me know and letting us know your own interest in pursuing this career. That’s really good to hear, and I hope you’ll do it.
So let’s put this in context. For well more than a decade now we have been – and that when I say we, I mean the world – has been living through a period of forced migration unlike any we’ve seen since World War II. And if you go back to 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, we’ve been seeing migratory crises, and within them refugee crises of course in Syria, in Iraq, in half a dozen countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, in our own hemisphere. And fast forwarding to today, of course, we now have Ukraine – to the point where there are something like 95 million people who have in one way or another been forcibly displaced from their homes.
And within that group, there are probably 30 million or so refugees. If you put them all into one country, it would be bigger than South Korea, bigger than Spain. That’s the magnitude of the problem, and it’s a global challenge. The world is focused now on Ukraine. It was focused a few years ago on Syria. And the question is: What can we effectively and rightly morally do about it?
The United States for decades and decades has been the primary refuge for those seeking it from around the world, and we’ve taken in more refugees than any country historically. But in recent years, that’s moved in another direction. By the time we came to office, the ceiling – because a ceiling is established every year on the number of refugees that you take in – that ceiling had been cut to 15,000. And as a practical matter, far fewer than that were actually getting into the United States. When President Biden took office, one of the first things that we did was to focus on that, and we looked at what needed to be done to start to get us back to the place that we’d been historically, which as – again, as the leading country when it comes to taking in refugees. And President Biden is on a path to re-elevate the ceiling of refugees that we take in to 125,000.
The problem is, again, this was not like flipping a light switch. We have to do it in a way that that allows us to effectively bring in that many people, because the system in the meantime had been broken. There’s an entire resettlement infrastructure that had atrophied over the – over the previous years because of this move away from taking in refugees. And until that system can be effectively rebuilt, it’s very hard to actually bring in that many people. The resettlement institutions themselves internationally had also atrophied. I just met, I think yesterday, with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, and we were talking about this at some length.
So part of this for us has been rebuilding, and that started well before the Ukraine crisis, not at all motivated by that. It was literally something that we started on day one of this administration. And we’re getting there. But as important as that is, besides the refugee program, which as I say has a cap and it has regional allocations, there are many other pathways to coming to the United States, legal pathways that we have been working on and trying to strengthen. And there are various things that we can use in our law to bring in – to bring more people in, including for example, reuniting families that have been split apart, work visas and permits of one kind or another, humanitarian parole. There are a whole number of ways of doing this.
But that also has to be done making sure that we have a system, a migration system that’s based on the rule of law, that deals also with the problem of illegal migration effectively, so that we have effective, strong, safe, humane borders. All of this has to has to come together, and we’re working to do just that. In our own hemisphere, we also have extraordinary challenges when it comes to migration. There are more people on the move in our own hemisphere than ever before. And whether it is Mexico, whether it’s Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, whether it’s Nicaragua and Venezuela, whether it’s Haiti, whether it’s Haitians who have migrated to Chile and Brazil and are now trying to make the move north, all of this is coming to play for a whole variety of reasons, all at once.
So there, we’re working very hard to bring our entire hemisphere together so that we deal with this as a shared responsibility. We’re gonna have a Summit of the Americas in a few weeks’ time where this will be front and center on the agenda. And one of the things that I hope results from it is a regional compact on shared responsibility for dealing with migration. Ultimately, there are different drivers of migration and refugees in different parts of the world. In our own hemisphere, it tends to be more than anything else an economic driver.
But one of my colleagues spoke very eloquently about this – another foreign minister from a Latin American country. We were meeting months ago, and she said that we ought to – there ought to be established a right to remain, that the conditions in countries that are causing people to feel compelled to leave, that’s what we need to address. In our own hemisphere, as I said, a lot of it is economic opportunity, so dealing with some of the root causes involves helping countries really create opportunity in ways that people can see that they have a future at home.
In other parts of the world, whether it’s Ukraine, whether it’s the Middle East, whether it’s Africa, it’s often conflict. And a big part of our responsibility and our work at the State Department is to try to prevent these conflicts from erupting in the first place, or to bring them to an end as quickly as possible if they have, and at the same time doing a lot more to help countries of first refuge for someone who’s a refugee be able to support them and to deal with the challenges that it poses to those countries.
I’ll end with this: We saw in Syria six, seven, eight years ago that Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, were bringing people in from Syria that in the case, for example, of Lebanon was somewhere between a quarter and a third of the entire population was a Syrian refugee. Try to imagine, if that was the case in the United States, the kinds of conversations we’d be having.
So one of the obligations I think we have is to make sure that countries that are countries of first refuge have the means to deal with that effectively, to make sure that not only can a refugee have a job, not only can their kids go to school, but the local population, the indigenous population, also is supported because it’s a huge drain on countries’ resources. So we’ve got to make sure that this somehow is a win-win.
Europe’s done a remarkable job with Ukrainians to date. They put in place a system that supports them, that allows them to move around Europe, that allows them to unite with family members who may already have been in other parts of Europe, that gives them social support, economic support for two years. That’s extraordinary. But that’s not available everywhere, and a lot of this work is something that we’re trying to drive around the world.
So it’s a monumental problem, it’s a global problem, it’s a global challenge. We have to be playing our part, and that’s what we’re trying to do.
MR BARR: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary, and thank you, Maheen. I’m going to call up the next of our Ford School students for a question. Hanna Schechter is an undergraduate senior at the Ford School, and let me turn things over to Hanna.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you, Secretary Blinken, for being with us this afternoon. My name is Hanna and my focus in the Ford School has been on diplomacy, so I greatly appreciate you being here.
This past spring break, I was able to travel to Washington, D.C. to interview policy analysts and foreign ambassadors regarding the war on Ukraine. In these conversations, we explored diplomatic and economic tools being used as well as the importance of having a unified international response in regards to the current sanctions regime. As the PRC tries to present itself as a neutral party, how feasible do you believe it is to convince Beijing not to undermine sanctions, while at the same time not jeopardizing isolating the PRC further to support Russia?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah, it’s a great question, and I think a really, really important one. You saw that before – just before Russia invaded Ukraine, the – Russia and China put out a joint statement that was about 5,000 words in length and that had maybe as its most defining line the notion that they had a partnership without limits.
Well, I think to some extent those limits, in fact, are actually being tested right now because China is in a challenging position. It says repeatedly that its policies are based, among other things, on the – on upholding the UN Charter and the principles that underlie it. I might dispute that, but leaving that aside, well, those very principles, that very charter, is being challenged right now by Russia’s aggression. And so we look to China to stand up to defend the principles that it purports to espouse, and it has not exactly done that.
I think it’s in an – increasingly in an uncomfortable position precisely because there’s a huge disconnect between what it purports to stand for and what it’s actually doing with regard to Russia’s aggression, and I think that’s having a big impact on its reputation around the world, in many parts of the world from Africa to the Middle East to Asia itself. And that’s something that it has to factor into its thinking and its decision making.
President Biden spent a couple of hours on a video conference with President Xi a few weeks ago in which we made very clear that we were watching carefully to see whether China in any way supported Russia’s war efforts either by literally supporting it materially or undermining or helping Russia evade sanctions. It’s something that we continue to watch very carefully, but these are decisions that China has to make.
And at the same time, there was just recently a meeting between the European Union and China where China is looking to develop, strengthen, deepen its relationships with Europe, with the European Union, with the countries in Europe. I think it heard and it got a lengthy earful from Europe about the concerns that Europe has about the aggression by Russia in Ukraine and what China is doing or not doing to stand and speak against that aggression. So all of these things will play out over time, but I think it is something that China very much has to factor into its calculus.
And again, I come back to this proposition that, again, no matter what you think of how we got there, whatever narratives Russia has tried to spin about what caused this, it really comes down to a very fundamental proposition, which is we have an aggressor, we have a victim, and this is not about siding with the United States. It’s about siding with right versus wrong; it’s about siding with the basic principles of the international system or for chaos and conflict. And ultimately, China has to choose.
MR BARR: Thank you very much, Secretary Blinken, and thank you, Hanna, for the terrific question. I know we’re slightly over the hour, Mr. Secretary, so I want to be conscious of your time. Do you have time for a question or two or are you at the hour?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Sure, I think we got one more question. We can do that.
MR BARR: Great. So this is a question that is about the moment we’re in in international diplomacy. This is obviously the Vandenberg Lecture series. Senator Vandenberg famously worked across partisan lines to really forge a new system after World War II that brought us NATO, that brought us the Marshall Plan, that really built the alliances that you are now working with today. Do you have a vision for what this world might look like, and what would it take to actually get back to a place where we could have a strong system of international alliances in the future?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Michael, first of all, it’s really – it’s really hard to throw yourself in the same sentence with Vandenberg or Kennan or Marshall or any of the other architects of what was a truly extraordinary achievement. So I think I approach this with equal doses of humility, but also some confidence, because I’m convinced that the United States at its best still has a greater capacity than any other country on Earth to mobilize others in common cause and hopefully for the greater good.
And to some extent we’ve seen that in action. We’ve seen that in action when it comes to Ukraine. Our engagement, the President’s leadership has done I think to date a very effective job in mobilizing others – mobilizing others in support of Ukraine, mobilizing others to put this extraordinary pressure on Russia, mobilizing others to make sure that our own alliance is properly resourced and defended. And that doesn’t just happen; it is the product of getting in there, rolling up your sleeves, engaging, and doing that every single day. And so I think we’ve seen already the traditional existing alliances stand up in ways that I suspect people didn’t really expect and maybe thought those days were gone. They’re not. But that’s necessary, but it’s also not enough.
One of the reasons that the President instructed us from day one to really focus on revitalizing, re-energizing, rebuilding as necessary our alliances, our partnerships, our engagement in international institutions, it is because there is a sort of founding vision that he has and that we share. First, it’s that American engagement and American leadership is necessary because in its absence, one of two things: either someone else is filling the void, and increasingly maybe that’s China, and probably not in a way that’s going to advance our interests and values; or, maybe just as bad, no one fills it, and then you tend to have a vacuum, and vacuums often get filled with chaos and conflict before they get filled by anything good.
So there is a renewed premium on our engagement and our leadership, and we’ve tried to step up to that. But equally, the flip side of that coin is engagement to what end and by what means? And for us, there’s equally a premium on making sure that we are working with others, not against them or at cross purposes. Because not a single one of the challenges that we face can be effectively dealt with by the United States acting alone. Ukraine is a very good example. We are far more effective having brought other countries along in defense of Ukraine, putting pressure on Russia, defending our own alliance.
But the same is true for the things that I mentioned earlier that are having a direct impact on the lives of virtually every American. When it comes to climate, the truly existential challenge that we face, we’re 15 percent of global emissions – even if we do everything right at home, that doesn’t account for the other 85 percent. So we have to engage the rest of the world, as John Kerry is literally doing right now, to try to bring other countries along in raising their own ambitions, helping to support countries that need help with adaptation and building resilience, and that’s what we’ve been doing, starting with getting back into Paris, through COP, et cetera.
COVID, we know – and it’s become trite, but it – we forget this at our peril: no one’s safe till everyone’s safe. And as long as the virus is percolating somewhere, it could be mutating, and we might end up with a variant that defeats the very strong tools that we’ve now put in place to deal with it.
So we have a strong incentive in bringing other countries along to get the rest of the world vaccinated. That’s exactly what we’re doing. We’ve mobilized more than a dozen countries now to take ownership, to take leadership in filling the gaps that still exist on vaccination, dealing with the last mile, supply chains, getting shots into arms, supporting health care workers, et cetera, et cetera, particularly in Africa, where the gap is huge between vaccination rates there and in other parts of the world.
Emerging technologies, the things that are really shaping the lives of our people, the smartphones that we all have in our pockets – the standards, the norms, the rules by which those technologies are used, that’s probably going to have a greater impact on the lives of everyone sitting in this room today than just about anything else. But we can’t do that alone; we can’t dictate that. We have to bring other countries along, and that goes with diplomacy.
In these windowless conference rooms around the world where these norms and standards and rules are getting decided and getting shaped, we’ve got to be at the table. And now we are. Just a couple weeks ago, I actually literally cut the ribbon – I’ve never got a chance to do that before, with a giant pair of scissors – (laughter) – in the State Department. We have a bureau that we just stood up in record time, thanks to terrific support from Congress on a bipartisan basis, to help lead on cybersecurity and digital policy so that the United States, in all of these places around the world where this is getting decided, is there at the table, and hopefully even at the head of the table. And we’re back and doing that.
And so to the extent that there is a vision, it really is about a reassertion of American leadership and engagement, a conviction that we have to do this with partners, with allies, within international institutions, as well as, where necessary, on our own.
And finally, the last point I’d make is this: We have to be investing in ourselves. That also gives us tremendous strength when we’re dealing abroad. President Biden’s been committed to that. We used to dedicate about 2 percent of our GDP to investments in research and development from the government. That’s got – that got down to about 0.7 percent of GDP. We’re trying to change that, because those investments – which were catalysts for invention and for the private sector – led to everything from the internet to GPS to so many other things in between. And we’re at a competitive disadvantage if we’re not making those investments. Same for infrastructure; same for education.
We used to be leaders in all of those areas when it – comparative to other countries. We’ve fallen back to – from one or two to 10, 11, 12, 20. Guess who has risen up in our place? China. So we’re making those – we’re trying to make those investments now. That’s going to stand us in very good stead.
The last thing is this: I hope in touching on some of these areas that there are many among you who will say: Ah, now I see a way that something I’m really interested in is actually relevant to our foreign policy, I can see a way – I’m interested in climate, I’m interested in technology, I’m interested in global health, I’m interested in economics. But you know what? If you are, that’s exactly why we need you and want you here at the State Department, because you’ll have an opportunity to help lead our country in those areas and, as a result, lead our efforts around the world to make sure that we’re trying to make the world just a little bit better, a little bit safer, a little bit more prosperous, a little bit more healthy. That’s ultimately what this is all about. That’s what benefits our own people. And this is a great part – a place to be a part of that.
So I hope that’s something that you take away and think about, and that we’ll see a few of you here in Washington.
MR BARR: Thank you so much, Mr. Secretary. Please, everyone, join me in thanking Secretary Blinken. (Applause.)