MIL-OSI USA: Secretary Antony J. Blinken At a Conversation with Thomas Friedman

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Source: United States Department of State

MR FRIEDMAN:  Klaus, thank you.  And Mr. Secretary, it’s great to be with you here this morning.  I want to begin with a real black-and-white contrast in the morning news, reading the papers.  One – on one side you read about the power these days, Mr. Secretary, of the – these small units, Houthis who can disrupt global shipping, Hamas on day 105 of the war still firing rockets at Israel.  And on the other hand, I know that the diplomacy is going forward in the Middle East.  We had the Saudi foreign minister saying publicly yesterday here in Davos that Saudi Arabia remains committed to a normalization with Israel under the right terms and opportunities for a Palestinian state.  Talk to me about the tension between those two trends now unfolding.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Tom, first of all, it’s wonderful to be with you, to be with everyone here today.  And Klaus, thank you for your incredibly warm and generous words.

Look, on one level, Tom, what we’re seeing and what you’ve seen and written about for a long time is the evolution of something that’s been in the works for quite a while, which is with the advent and the democratization of technology, information technology, you have super-empowered groups, super-empowered entities that can make an extraordinary amount of trouble for nation-states and others, and we’re seeing that.

But I think we’re also seeing something else.  And if you look hard enough, you can really see it.  And it’s a different equation, a different equation that answers the profound needs of virtually everyone in the region, starting with Israel and starting with its age-old question for genuine security.  And it’s this:  You now have something you didn’t have before, and that is Arab countries and Muslim countries even beyond the region that are prepared to have a relationship with Israel in terms of its integration, its normalization, its security, that they were never prepared to have before, and to do things, to give the necessary assurance, to make the necessary commitments and guarantees, so that Israel is not only integrated but it can feel secure.

But you also have an absolute conviction by those countries, one that we share, that this has to include a pathway to a Palestinian state, because you’re not going to get the genuine integration you need, you’re not going to get the genuine security you need, absent that.  And of course, to that end as well, a stronger, reformed Palestinian Authority that can more effectively deliver for its own people has to be part of the equation.

But if you take a regional approach, and if you pursue integration with security, with a Palestinian state, all of a sudden you have a region that’s come together in ways that answer the most profound questions that Israel has tried to answer for years, and what has heretofore been its single biggest concern in terms of security, Iran, is suddenly isolated along with its proxies, and will have to make decisions about what it wants its future to be.

So this is – this is actually clear when you look at it and see it.  The problem is getting from here to there.  And of course, it requires very difficult and challenging decisions.  It requires a mindset that’s open to that perspective.  But the choice is there, and ultimately this is about choices.  What kind of society do we want to live in?  What kind of world do we want to live in?  What kind of region do we want to live in?

We talk a lot as well today about regionalization.  There is a profound opportunity for regionalization in the Middle East, in the greater Middle East, that we have not had before.  The challenge is realizing it.

MR FRIEDMAN:  Does Israel have the prime minister for that opportunity?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, these are decisions for Israelis to make.  This is a profound decision for the country as a whole to make:  What direction does it want to take?  Does it see – can it seize – the opportunity that we believe is there?  And they’ll have to make those decisions.

Anyone who’s in office faced with what – this is an inflection point.  President Biden talks about this often.  It’s an inflection point geostrategically.  I think it’s also an inflection point in the Middle East.  And when you get to an inflection point, you have to make hard decisions.

MR FRIEDMAN:  When we talk about a transformed Palestinian Authority, Mr. Secretary, it seems to me in many ways it’s the answer to – now that I hear you – four challenges Israel faces.  That is, right now challenge number one since October 7th, Israel’s lost the narrative in this war.  That’s how it’s ended up in the world court, number one.

Number two, it went to war without any vision of the morning after or a Palestinian partner that could help it govern Gaza.

Number three, we’re trying to put together a regional alliance to deal with the threats from Houthis and Hizballah, which can only be dealt with through a regional alliance.  And that requires a Palestinian component.

And so when you think about it, a credible, legitimate Palestinian state in peace with Israel becomes the answer to all three of those questions.  You’ve just said that’s a challenge this prime minister will have to rise to.  Do we have the Palestinian leadership for that?  And when we talk about a transformed Palestinian Authority, what do we mean?  What are we looking for?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So again, we don’t purport to make these decisions for others.  There have to be ways, means, vehicles for Palestinians to make these decisions.  But I think what we’re talking about is two things.  You’re talking about a governance, a government, and a structure of governance that maximizes the ability of the authority to actually deliver what the Palestinian people want and need.  But it also has to be able to operate in what you might call a permissive environment – in other words, with the support of, with the help of Israel, not with its active opposition – because even the most effective authority is going to have a lot of trouble if it’s got the active opposition of any Israeli government.

But I think it’s also clear from the conversations that are going on now that the Palestinians are looking very hard at how they can come up with a more effective governance that can actually deliver what the people want.  Some of what needs to be delivered is the basic – the basic function of government, services, no corruption, transparency in the way government is pursued.  There are also things that people want that they can’t on their own deliver absent a partnership with Israel, so that has to be part of the equation as well.

MR FRIEDMAN:  When we think of the timeframe for this playing out, if we can get here, Mr. Secretary, are we talking one, two, three years?  Are we talking a 10-year process?  How do you envisage it?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  As we’re in the midst of what is a human tragedy in so many ways in the Middle East right now for Israelis and Palestinians alike, I have to tell you I personally feel the fierce urgency of now.

MR FRIEDMAN:  Right.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  It’s not that any of this happens overnight.  It’s not like it’s flipping a light switch.  But seeing if we can move to this – start to move to this different vision, to this different equation, to this different integration, I think that has to begin as quickly as possible.

And as I said before, the profound difference now I think is in the mindset of leaders throughout the Arab world and in Muslim countries, and in a way it’s a reversal, it’s a flip, as you know so well better than anyone.  When in previous times we came close to resolving the Palestinian question, getting a Palestinian state, I think the view then – Camp David, other places – was that Arab leaders, Palestinian leaders, had not done enough to prepare their own people for this profound change.  I think a challenge now, a question now:  Is Israeli society prepared to engage on these questions?  Is it prepared to have that mindset?  That’s challenging.  And it’s, of course, doubly challenging when you’re focused intensely on Gaza and all of the security questions that are the day-in/day-out life for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

MR FRIEDMAN:  Is this the worst time to be Secretary of State of the United States?   (Laughter.)  Or just one of the top five?  I was thinking about since Henry Kissinger recently passed away that when he did his shuttle diplomacy, and I was thinking about this, as he went shuttling in the region several times, he basically had to call three people – Golda Meir, Anwar Sadat, and Hafez al-Assad , and they all answered the phone.  You need to have the Houthis, Hizballah, Hamas in your rolodex, and half the people you call, the phone comes off the wall.  What’s it like for you?  Take us into that – the nature of your job today of managing weakness not strength?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So first of all, I actually think that we come at much of this from a renewed position of strength in the big picture.  First, President Biden has made investments at home that people around the world are seeing.  They’re seeing the investments we’ve made in our own infrastructure.  They’re seeing the investments we’ve made in cutting-edge technology, in chips, in science.  They’re seeing the investment we’ve made in climate technology and related energy technology that’s going to power the economies of the future.  So they know that we’re actually serious about ourselves despite some of the dysfunction that may be seen in the – on the front pages.

Second, in ways that we haven’t done in recent years, the first thing I was told to do by the President was roll up our sleeves, re-engage, re-engage with our allies, re-engage with our partners, build new collections of countries that were – and organizations that were fit for purpose to deal with specific problems.  And I think we’ve done that in such a way that on some of the really big issues of the day, whether it’s how to deal with China, how to deal with Russia, we have more convergence than we’ve had at any time in recent memory between us, key partners throughout Europe, throughout Asia, and even in other parts of the world, about how to manage these problems.  So that’s a position of strength.

Second, in areas like the Middle East, where we have this profound and in many ways gut—wrenching challenge right now, here’s what I’m hearing.  I’m hearing from virtually every country that they want the United States, they want us present, they want us at the table, they want us leading.  President Biden sed to like to say that he’s never been to any country where the United States was not all at once the source of its problem and its only solution.  Well, that’s a slight exaggeration of this moment, but I think there is a kernel of truth there.

And there’s something else that’s very powerful from our perspective.  We know that if we’re not engaged, if we’re not leading, then one of two things:  Either someone else is, and just from the perspective of an American, that probably means that that’s going to happen in a way that may not reflect our own interests and values; or, even worse maybe, no one is.  And then you’ve got a vacuum, and we both know vacuums tend to be filled by bad things before they’re filled with good things.

So I think there is a greater premium than there’s ever been on our engagement, on our leadership, in partnership with others, because much of much we’re trying to do we can’t effectively get done alone.  We have to have partners.  We have to reimagine, as we’ve been doing, our partnerships.  And that actually makes it a great time, even with the terrible human trauma that so many people are going through now and that affects all of us, it makes it a very extraordinary time to have the responsibility of this job.

MR FRIEDMAN:  So one of the things that really strikes me from the outside as a challenge you have right now is that if you don’t respond to something like the attacks of the Houthis on international shipping, international shipping gets completely disrupted, creating inflation all over the world.  If you do respond, it enmeshes you and us in a very messy kind of Middle East war.

And we’re in a political season in America.  It gives an opportunity for someone like Donald Trump to come along and say none of this would be happening on my watch, that he can kind of present himself as the source of order at a time when people are fearing disorder.  But you obviously have to engage with this right now, so it’s two questions.  One, I’m interested in your response to that generally.  I’m not trying to drag you into politics.  I know there’s a limit to what you can do.

But at the same time, when I hear Trump say that, I’m always reminded of him tearing up the Iran nuclear deal.  And on a 1 to 10 scale, 10 being incredibly stupid and 1 being okay, how is that not one of the 10 most stupid things the United States has done in the 21st century?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Tom, I’m glad that wasn’t a rhetorical question.  (Laughter.)  So you’re right, I don’t do politics.  I’m focused on policies, focused on the moment that we’re in and trying to find with the President, with my colleagues in government, Jake Sullivan and others, the right policies for this moment to advance the interests of our country, the values that we have, which we believe we share with many, many, many people around the world.  So that’s what this is about.  We have these discrete problems that you’ve identified, but they’re also – as you’ve also identified – connected.

MR FRIEDMAN:  Yes.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  And this is why these larger constructs are also so important to keep in mind.  If we can change the larger direction of a region like the Middle East, a lot of these other problems will be minimized if not totally eliminated.  The excuses, the rationales that various troublemakers have for making trouble, may go away.  So that’s also part of an effective way of dealing with the challenge.

Look, on Iran I’m not going to put it on a scale of 1 to 10, but I think it was a big mistake to tear up the Iran nuclear agreement.  We had Iran’s nuclear program in a box.  Since the agreement was torn up, it’s escaped from that box, and we’re now at a place where we didn’t want to be because we don’t have the agreement.  So I think that was deeply unfortunate.

MR FRIEDMAN:  As you, I’m sure, felt during – here in your conversations and I’ve felt it a lot – and this will be my last question on the Middle East.  One of the things you hear so often from people, given the high civilian casualties in Gaza is:  Does the United States – do Jewish lives matter more than Palestinian and Muslim lives, Muslim and Palestinian Christian lives, given the incredible asymmetry in casualties?  And I’ve been asked that.  I want to give you a chance to respond to that.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  No, period.  For me, I think for so many of us, what we’re seeing every single day in Gaza is gut-wrenching.  And the suffering we’re seeing among innocent men, women, and children breaks my heart.  The question is:  What is to be done?  We’ve made judgments about how we thought we could be most effective in trying to shape this in ways to get more humanitarian assistance to people, to get better protections, and minimize civilian casualties.

And at every step along the way, not only have we impressed upon Israel its responsibilities to do that, we’ve seen some progress in areas where absent our engagement I don’t believe it would have happened.  So there are a lot of – there are dogs that didn’t bark.  But that in no way, shape – way, shape, or form takes away from the tragedy that we’ve seen and continue to see.  It’s why we’re at it relentlessly every single day.  And all I can tell you, Tom, is just on a purely human level it’s devastating, but it reinforces the conviction and the commitment to do two things:  to do everything we can in this moment using our best judgment – and of course, we could be wrong about the judgments we’re making – but to try to make a difference in the day-in/day-out.

But it also reinforces my conviction that there has to be – and there is – another way that answers Israel’s most profound concerns and questions.  Israelis have to live with security.  They can’t have a repeat of October 7th.  No country would accept a repeat of October 7th.

And I think not by way of justification but just by way of explanation, it’s hard to overstate the psychological impact on the country as a whole of what happened on that day.  And there are large swaths of the world – going back to one of the first things you said – where information technology, information environments have been used and abused in such a way that large numbers of people don’t believe October 7th actually happened.  They don’t believe that Hamas slaughtered men, women, and children, that it executed parents in front of their kids, that it executed kids in front of their parents, that it burned families alive.  They don’t believe it.  And so of course, especially with that, everything that followed is even worse.

Here’s what it comes down to, in my judgment.  I think the biggest poison that we face around the world internally in our societies and externally in our relations with others is dehumanization – the inability to see the humanity in the other.  And that applies in every direction.  And when that happens, you get so hardened that you’re willing to do and accept things that you wouldn’t if the humanity of the other was front and center in your conscience.

So one of our challenges is to fight that dehumanization, to find ways to defuse it, to take that poison out.  And that’s also a function of leadership.  We need leaders around the world who see that, understand that, and are prepared to act on that.

MR FRIEDMAN:  Thank you.  When – I think I want to segue to Ukraine here a little bit if we could but tie them together.  Mr. Secretary, when people ask you what sort of happened in the last year, the way I see it is that Ukraine was trying to join the West and Israel was trying to join the East through normalization with Saudi Arabia; Russia stopped the first, and Iran and Hamas stopped the second.  Is that – is there – do you think that’s correct, generally speaking?  And what – why is Ukraine joining the EU, which for me is just hugely important – why is Ukraine joining the West so important, as important as you’ve already described Israel joining the East?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, look, I think I like that equation.  But fundamentally why is it so important for Ukraine?  Because it’s what its people want.  And this was the aspiration that they had that was disrupted, interrupted in 2014.  Remember that’s what the Maidan was all about.  It was about people coming out into the streets peacefully protesting because a government beholden to Moscow had reversed course on the path that Ukraine was taking to association with the European Union and ultimately membership.  That reflected the will, the desire of the Ukraine people.

One of the tragedies is, is that was not at all incompatible with maintaining close ties to Russia – cultural, economic, and other.  Those ties now have been obliterated because of Russia’s aggression.  Back in 2014, if you looked at polling, Russia was broadly popular in Ukraine.  The desire for Ukraine to join NATO was at maybe 25 percent.  But I think Ukrainians looked and saw that they could have a better, more prosperous life with opportunity, with future generations enjoying better lives than their parents had known, through getting closer to Europe.  And when that was interrupted, disrupted, that’s what unleashed the chain of events that bring us to today.  So it’s about fulfilling their own aspirations.

MR FRIEDMAN:  Bring us up to the date therefore on the diplomacy.  Ukraine’s military chief of staff, I believe, said we’re at a stalemate.  I know that President Zelenskyy has argued otherwise, but it doesn’t seem like there’s much movement on the ground, yet it feels from the outside that neither party is ready or willing or even interested in talking about a negotiated settlement.  How does it look like to you?  What’s going on there?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So first, I think it’s really important to put this in perspective, because when you step back, what you see is this:  Putin has already failed in what he set out to do.  He set out to erase Ukraine from the map, to eliminate its independence, to subsume it into Russia.  That has failed and it cannot and will not succeed.

Second, Ukraine has not only stood up to the aggression; over the past year, it took back more than 50 percent of the territory that had been taken from it in February of 2022.  The last year, the last part of the last year, has been challenging, but even then something that got little notice – what Ukraine managed to do in the Black Sea – opening it up, pushing the Russian navy back, and starting to get grain out to the world.  It’s been the breadbasket of the world.  It’s gone back to that as a result of actions it’s taken.

And the other thing that I think is less visible is that Ukraine has been a profound strategic failure for Vladimir Putin and for Russia.  In so many ways, Putin has precipitated virtually everything he sought to prevent.  You now have a Russia that overall is weaker militarily, it’s weaker economically, it’s weaker diplomatically.  Europe has severed its energy dependence on Russia.  Ukrainians are more united than they’ve ever been.  The NATO Alliance it stronger, it’s larger, and it will get larger still in the weeks ahead.

So stepping back, the strategic picture looks, I think, very different than maybe the day-in/day-out picture as you see the challenges on the battlefield.

Having said that, there’s one other important aspect to this.  Look, this is a ferocious fight and Russia does have tremendous resources that it brings to it.  And Putin continues to be willing to put his young men into a meat grinder of his own making to try to advance his interests.  That’s a profound tragedy for Russia.  It’s a profound tragedy for so many who are affected by it.

But as we’re looking at it and as we’re looking at Ukraine, we can see what Ukraine’s future can and should be irrespective of exactly where lines are drawn.  And that’s a future where it stands strongly on its own two feet militarily, economically, democratically.  And each of these things is mutually reinforcing.  Militarily, even as we’re helping them prosecute the day-in/day-out, 30 countries have come together to make commitments to Ukraine to help them design a force for the future that can stand up to any future aggression, that can deter it, and that, again, will enable Ukraine to do this mostly on its own without the massive continuous influx of resources from others.

Second, we’re working very hard on getting private-sector investment generated in Ukraine.  We have Penny Pritzker, former Secretary of Commerce, who has come back into government to lead our efforts on this.  Others are doing the same thing.  There is tremendous opportunity economically in Ukraine.  We’ve got to get the investment flowing in.  That’s a very powerful answer.

But here’s where things are mutually reinforcing.  First, the military piece reinforces the investment because you do need to protect the areas where you’re making investments.  Things like air defenses really matter.  Second, the democratic piece is vital because the reforms that Ukraine is pursuing, that it has to pursue if it wants to get into the EU – and that process began in December – those reforms are exactly the kind of reforms that are necessary to attract that kind of investment.  And that’s reinforced by so many from the private sector who have gone to Ukraine and said okay, here’s what’s needed if we’re going to make these investments.

That process starts to take on a life of its own with a push from us and dozens of other countries, but then Ukraine can be off and running.  It doesn’t require all of us to make the same kinds of emergency investments that we’ve had to make over the last couple of years.  It’s the best single possible answer to Vladimir Putin.  It’s the best rebuke to his aggression.

MR FRIEDMAN:  Are we anywhere near any kind of negotiation, though, for a stable, long-term ceasefire?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, in this moment, I don’t see it.  We’re always open to it, attentive to it, because more than anyone else the Ukrainian people want this.  But there has to be a willingness on the part of Russia to engage, to negotiate in good faith, based on the basic principles that have been challenged by its aggression – territorial integrity, sovereignty, independence.  If and when Russia is prepared to negotiate on that basis, it will find Ukrainians who want to do that and it’ll certainly find support from the United States in doing that, and many other countries.

No one wanted this.  And in fact, we tried – we tried to prevent it.  We saw it was coming.  We warned the world.  We also engaged Russia intensely for several months trying to see if there was some genuine security issue that was motivating them to do what they seemed to be ready to do.  And unfortunately, it became apparent – and you don’t have to believe me; just read what President Putin says – it was never really about that.  It was always about this grand vision of re-establishing a greater Russia.

MR FRIEDMAN:  Secretary,  you recently met and President Biden met with President Xi.  And when it comes to sort of Russia today, one reason it’s been able to keep up this war in Ukraine is that it’s found huge markets abroad for its oil and other things, and largely through China.  And two questions related:  Is there a possibility of a Biden to Beijing kind of move, where we separate China from Russia in a way that we did during the Cold War; and do you, when you – when you’re engaging with Xi on these issues and Russia, do you ever say to him, “Russia’s a loser.  Why are you hanging out with this loser?”  (Laughter.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, in diplomacy, Tom, sometimes we – (laughter).

MR FRIEDMAN:  It’s not like journalism?  (Laughter.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I think different terminology.  (Laughter.)  No, and I’m not commenting specifically on what you just said.  Occasionally you see collections of countries coming together, and it reminds you of the famous bar scene in Star Wars.  You’re not necessarily expecting you want to be part of it. (Laughter.)

MR FRIEDMAN:  Yes, yeah.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  But let me say this.  First, for us as for so many countries, the relationship with China is among the most complex and the most consequential that we have.  And as I was saying earlier, we’ve – we’re now in a position where we’re approaching that relationship from a position of much greater strength than we were in the past because we’ve made investments at home, because we’ve re-energized and in may ways reimagined our alliances and partnerships abroad.  And the convergence that we have with other countries on how to approach the complexities of dealing with China is much greater than it was, and that’s a tremendous source of strength.  We see that playing out every single day.

We thought it was very important first and foremost to stabilize the relationship so that at the very least the competition that we’re in doesn’t veer into conflict.  That’s not in our interest.  It’s not in anyone’s interest.  And thanks to President Biden’s leadership, we’ve done just that.  I took a trip to Beijing this past summer, then many of my colleagues in government followed – Secretary Yellen, Secretary Raimondo, John Kerry.  But ultimately it culminated in the meeting that President Biden and President Xi had in San Francisco.  There’s no substitute for leader-leader engagement, especially when you’re dealing with China.  And I imagine – I know you’ll see more of that in the year ahead.

But not only for purposes of stabilizing the relationship, but to do two other things:  to make sure that we’re dealing very directly, very clearly with our differences so that there is no misunderstanding about where we’re coming from; second, to see if despite these differences, despite the intense competition, there aren’t also places where it’s in our mutual interest to cooperate more.  And that’s also exactly what we did.  We restored military-to-military communications – absolutely vital for making sure that we don’t veer unintentionally into conflict.

And then we did something that actually addresses arguably one of the most important needs, maybe one of the most urgent needs of the American people.  And I’m not sure it got the attention that it should have.

The single number-one killer of Americans age 18 to 49 – and really, let this sink in.  The number-one killer of Americans 18 to 49 is fentanyl, synthetic opioids.  Not car accidents, not guns, not cancer.  Synthetic opioids, fentanyl.

Now, the way that’s evolved, as you know, over the years is that instead of China exporting fentanyl itself – which it stopped doing – its companies were exporting the chemical ingredients, the precursors that were then synthesized into fentanyl, typically in Mexico, came to the United States and did terrible damage to our people.

A year ago, this fentanyl that we seized – that we seized, not the totality of what’s out there, that we seized – was enough to kill every single American citizen.  So this is a monumental problem.

As a result of this engagement, we got an agreement with China that it would take a different approach to the synthetic opioid question.  And it agreed to put out new rules for its companies, but then – much more important – to actually crack down on companies that were engaged in this illicit practice of diverting the chemical precursors into fentanyl, and we’ve seen it take action against dozens and dozens of companies.

Now that has to be sustained.  You want to make sure that a company that goes out of business under one name doesn’t go back into business under another – all that.  But we’ve seen genuine, positive, affirmative action by China on a question of arguably the greatest import to the health of Americans.

So that’s why making sure that as we’re engaged with China we’re engaged on all aspects of the relationship:  yes, the competition; yes, contesting when they’re doing something or planning something that we can’t accept; but also cooperation where it’s clearly in our interest.

MR FRIEDMAN:  Secretary, I consider myself a raging Indophile, and one reason is that India always struck me as a miracle – 1.4 billion people speaking over a hundred languages, having free and fair elections generation after generation.  If India were like Syria today, I mean, the whole world would be different.  And President Modi, I think, has been impressive in his achievements in building infrastructure, and India’s economy has really taken off, I think, to a whole new degree.  But I do worry about the kind of runaway Hindi nationalism sometime draining India of its example of – this incredible example of pluralism.  How do you see it?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So I think we see two things.  First of all, we see an extraordinary success story and we see the remarkable achievements that Prime Minister Modi has achieved, moved forward under his watch that have materially benefitted and materially positively affected so many Indian lives.  We also see a relationship between our countries that is in a new place, at a new level.  And that’s been, I think, the very deliberate effort of both the prime minister and President Biden, who believes in this deeply.

At the same time, a constant regular part of our conversation is the conversation about democracy, about rights.  The President took office wanting to make sure that we put back into our foreign policy these fundamental concerns about democracy, about human rights, and we’ve done that.  We do it in different ways in different places.  In some places maybe it’s more overt, maybe it’s more vocal.  In others, because of the nature of the relationship we may have with a country, with a government, it’s part of a very sustained, very real conversation, and a conversation that we, of course, hope produces positive change.  That’s the case with India.

MR FRIEDMAN:  A country that’s obviously in the news because of a recent election is Taiwan. Taiwan is one of my favorite countries – barren rock in a typhoon-laden sea that has amassed these incredible reserves, the world’s best chip companies.  So much has changed there, Mr. Secretary, over the 40 years I’ve been visiting.  There’s just one thing that hasn’t changed, and it’s geography.  It’s still a tiny island off mainland China.  People who forget their geography sometimes get in trouble, and that wrestling inside Taiwan over that we see in every election, including the last one.  How do you see the results of the last election?  Because it was a certain balanced result with the KMT maintaining the majority in the parliament, the DPP winning the presidency.  How do you see it and how do you hope the U.S. Congress responds to it?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I think what we see in Taiwan on one level is very straightforward.  We see a very powerful affirmation of democracy – something that we congratulated the people of Taiwan for and something that’s been consistent now over many years.  And that’s the most important thing.

Look, our fundamental interest, the fundamental interest of countries around the world, is to make sure peace and stability is maintained in the Taiwan Strait, that any differences between Beijing and Taiwan are resolved peacefully, and that actually one of the hallmarks of success of the relationship between the United States and China since the establishment of diplomatic relations has actually been the management of the Taiwan issue.  And the premium that we’ve had has been maintaining the status quo, allowing people on Taiwan to know ever better lives and to be remarkable contributors to the global commons, which they are, but to maintain the status quo and for neither side to take steps that would in any way disrupt it, especially when it comes to the use of force.

That’s not only our position; that’s the position of country after country around the world.  And there’s one very practical reason for it and it’s something you alluded to:  50 percent of global commerce goes through that strait every single day.  If that were to be disrupted, it would affect the entire planet, and it’s about the last thing we need, especially coming back from COVID.

Second – again, to state the obvious to everyone – semiconductors and the manufacturing capacity that Taiwan has, that affects every person in this room and almost every person around the room, from the smartphone you carry in your pocket to your dishwasher to your automobile to everything else.

So small as it is, by its geography and by its extraordinary ingenuity, Taiwan plays an outsized role in the world.  That’s why so many countries have a stake in preserving peace, in preserving stability.  And again, it’s not just us saying this to Beijing; it’s country after country.  They say it in different ways, some more quietly than others, but everyone has the same interest.

MR FRIEDMAN:  I want to close, Mr. Secretary, with a more personal question.  Your predecessor, Dean Acheson, wrote a book, Present at the Creation.  And when I think of the time of your holding this job, I think of it as an age of amplification, acceleration, and democratization.  Never have more people had access to tools that amplify their power at a steadily accelerating rate and being democratized to more people.

You’ve been around diplomacy a lot now, two administrations.  What surprised you most in this job in the last three-plus years, things that you didn’t see despite all you’d been doing before?  What’s going to be the title of Tony Blinken’s book?  (Laughter.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  The Best Laid Plans?  I don’t know.  (Laughter.)  Look, I think, Tom, to your point, and I’ve been doing this for 30 years professionally and I can’t think of a time when there’s been both a greater multiplicity and greater complexity of the challenges that we’re dealing with.  So it’s real, and again, the spread of sources of power, the democratization of information technology, of technology more broadly, as we were saying at the very outset of this conversation, has empowered groups, empowered individuals, in ways that was not the case a few generations ago and has made life a lot more challenging for the nation-state.

But having said that, even as we’re in moments where it just seems like you’ve got some darkness, there are powerful, powerful beams of light that you can see for the way things can, should, and I believe will be – better, different.  And we’ve talked about one of them.  You can see a very different future for the Middle East that finally answers challenges that have afflicted it and as a result afflicted much of the world through generations.  You can see through the power of technology so much good that is possible in solving fundamental problems.

We did a session on the margins of the UN General Assembly on AI and the Sustainable Development Goals.  Now we can use artificial intelligence to actually accelerate those goals, which, as many of you know, have stalled out a bit.  And the excitement was almost palpable.  And what’s really interesting to me is if you look at some of the polling, and if you actually have conversations with people, the people most excited about the positive potential of AI tend to be in the great global majority in the world.  They know the difference that it and other technologies, when harnessed and marshaled in a smart way, can mean for putting more food on the table, for creating greater opportunity, for solving climate change, for dealing with energy needs.  All of that is there.

And one of the things that is challenging is that, yeah, you get headlines every that day, of course, are focused on the really hard things.  All of the good that’s actually happening that’s moving forward step by step, you tend to either not see it or discount it.  But as I’m going around the world, I see as much or not more than that.  And look, for the United States, it’s again a very basic proposition.  President Biden believes strongly, as I said before, that when we’re engaged, when we’re leading, we can help move the ball forward.

But what is different is this:  The flipside of that leadership coin is the cooperation point.  We know that virtually none of the problems that we want to address for our own people can be done in isolation.  We can’t do it on our own.  We have to have partnerships, but they have to be reimagined.  It’s, yes, our traditional alliances and partnerships, but also building new ones, as I said, that are fit for specific purposes, bringing together collections of countries, the private sector, NGOs, other actors – all of whom have an interest and maybe some special capacity to solve the problem.  I like to refer to it as variable geometry, and that’s what we’ve been doing.  We’ve been putting these different pieces together.

And I think when you emerge from the immediacy of this moment – five years, ten years – a lot of that variable geometry will be much more visible.  But more than that, it can, it will, produce positive results.  That’s what motivates me.  So I’m motivated by that because I really see it and feel it.  And when it comes to the hard things, I think Churchill said when you’re going through hell, keep going.  (Laughter.)

MR FRIEDMAN:  Mr. Secretary, I have a simple criteria for interviews:  Was it interesting and did it make news?  You pass both with flying colors.  Thank you very much.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you, Tom.  (Applause.)

MR FRIEDMAN:  Really appreciate it, Tony.

MIL OSI USA News