Secretary Antony J. Blinken Interview With Wolf Blitzer of CNN’s The Situation Room
QUESTION: Joining us now here in The Situation Room, the new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. Mr. Secretary, congratulations. Thanks so much for joining us. I know you’ve got a lot on your plate; we’re grateful to you for taking a few moments to discuss these issues with us. I know you’ve already outlined some aspects of what’s being described as the emerging Biden doctrine. What are the biggest differences, from your perspective, between the Trump and Biden doctrines when it comes to foreign policy?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, Wolf, first, it’s great to see you, and it’s great to be with you today. Thanks for having me. Look, I think when the President’s looking at this, two basic conclusions: first, the world doesn’t organize itself. So if we’re not in there and present every single day trying to do some of that organizing, helping to write the rules and shape the norms that sort of govern the way countries relate to each other, then either someone else is going to do it in our place, or maybe just as bad, no one does it and then you have chaos. Either way, not good for America, so part one is showing up. Be engaged.
Part two is this: None of the big problems that we face, and that are actually going to affect the lives of the American people every single day, whether it’s climate, whether it’s the pandemic, whether it’s the spread of bad weapons, not a single one can be addressed by any one country acting alone, even one as powerful as the United States. So there’s a premium on cooperation, and so a premium on diplomacy. Because how do we get that cooperation from other countries? It starts with our diplomacy.
QUESTION: Let’s talk about some specific issues – Russia first. President Biden is warning that he won’t, in his words, “hesitate to raise the cost on Russia.” But so far the Biden administration hasn’t offered any specifics. What does that cost, from your perspective, look like?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, I think when it comes to Mr. Navalny, the fact that Russia feels compelled, that Mr. Putin feels compelled to try to silence one voice speaks volumes about how important that voice is and how it’s representative of so many millions of Russians who want to be heard, and who are fed up with the corruption and with the kleptocracy. But what we’re doing is, first of all, consulting and working closely with other countries who are very concerned about what’s happened – not just to Mr. Navalny, but others who have stood up to exercise their rights.
But second, Wolf, as you know, it seems apparent that a chemical weapon was used to try to kill Mr. Navalny. That violates the Chemical Weapons Convention and other obligations that Russia has. It violates clear sanctions that Congress has. We’re reviewing that, we’re looking at that very carefully, and when we have the results we’ll take action in the appropriate way.
QUESTION: And then you’ll spell it out at that time.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s right.
QUESTION: Do the protests in support of the opposition leader Aleksey Navalny, from your perspective, signal vulnerability in Putin when it comes to Putin’s grip on the country?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I think it spells a deep dissatisfaction with, as I said, the corruption that is rampant, the kleptocracy that dominates the government. And it just speaks to the fact that Russians are looking for ways to make sure that their voice is heard. And the system as it’s currently constituted doesn’t – it doesn’t exactly favor that.
So look, the – this is fundamentally about Russia, the Russian people, their future. It’s not about us. And I think the Russian Government would make a mistake in attributing to outside actors – whether it’s the United States, European partners, and others – responsibility for what’s happening. This is fundamentally about Russia, about Russia’s future, and hopefully about a more democratic system going forward.
QUESTION: You’re facing a stalemate apparently when it comes to Iran, the Iran nuclear deal. Iran’s ayatollah says the U.S. needs to lift sanctions before it returns to the deal. President Biden says he won’t lift sanctions first. So what happens now?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, look, the President’s been very clear about this. If Iran returns to compliance with its obligations under the nuclear agreement, we would do the same thing, and then we would work with our allies and partners to try to build a longer and stronger agreement, and also bring in some of these other issues, like Iran’s missile program, like its destabilizing actions in the region that need to be addressed as well.
The problem we face now, Wolf, is that in recent months Iran has lifted one restraint after another that was – they were being held in check by the agreement. We got out of the agreement, Iran started to lift the various restraints in the agreement, and the result is they are closer than they’ve been to having the capacity on short order to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon. The agreement had pushed that past a year. According to public reports now, it’s down to three or four months and heading in the wrong direction.
So the first thing that’s so critical is for Iran to come back into compliance with its obligations. They’re a ways from that. But if they do that, the path of diplomacy is there, and we’re willing to walk it.
QUESTION: So they’ve got to take the first step, and then the U.S. will respond. Is that right?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s – the President’s been clear about that. They need to come back to compliance, and if they do, we will look to do the same thing.
QUESTION: Well, let’s talk about China. The President says he’s, quote, “I’m not going to do it the way Trump did.” But are there some aspects of the Trump approach, Mr. Secretary, he may, in fact, build on; for example, a tougher stance on unfair trade practices, the cyber theft of American technology? What do you say?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So I think in fairness to President Trump he was right to take a tougher approach to China. That was the right thing to do. The way he went about it, in my judgment, was wrong across the board, but the basic principle was the right one.
But what does this require of us? We have to engage China from a position of strength. And whether it’s the adversarial aspects of the relationship, the competitive ones, or the cooperative ones which are there in our mutual interest, we have to deal with it from a position of strength.
That means having strong alliances – that’s a source of advantage for us – not denigrating our alliances. It means, as we were talking about earlier, showing up again in the world, engaging. Because if we don’t, when we pull back, China fills in. It means standing up for our values, not abdicating them, when we see the abuse of the rights of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang or democracy in Hong Kong. It means making sure that we’re postured militarily to deter aggression, and it means investing in our own people so that they can compete effectively.
If we do all of these things, and all of these things are within our control, we can engage China from a position of strength.
QUESTION: You say the Uyghurs are victims of genocide. That’s a powerful word, as we all know. How much weight will human rights abuses carry in President Biden’s overall approach to China?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: The President’s been very clear that he wants to put and will put and is putting human rights and democracy back at the center of our foreign policy. And so whether it’s China or any other country where we have deep and serious concerns, this will be something that is front and center, and I think you’ve already seen that play out.
QUESTION: How is it going to play out, do you think, down the road, let’s say in the next immediate period ahead?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, we have these deep concerns that we will act on but also act on in concert with other countries, with allies and partners who share the concerns that we have, particularly, again, about the abuse of human rights of the Uyghurs, but also the abuse of democracy in Hong Kong. China made commitments during the handover from the United Kingdom to China about Hong Kong, about the rights of its people. Those commitments have not been upheld.
QUESTION: Let’s get to some other sensitive issues. So President Biden is ending U.S. military support for Saudi and Emirati offensive operations in Yemen, pausing arms sales to those countries. Does President Biden intend to substantially change the U.S.-Saudi relationship?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, on Yemen itself, Wolf, three things are critical. One, we are ending our support for the military campaign by – led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Second, as we are doing that we are also deeply committed to the defense of Saudi Arabia, aggression directed at it from the Houthis. So those two points are very critical. The third point, though, is equally important. Even as we are getting out of supporting the military campaign, we are leaning into playing a leading role and an active role in the diplomacy to try to actually end the war.
The President, through the State Department, appointed a senior special envoy to deal with Yemen, and he’s now engaged and acting. We need to lean into this. This is by most accounts the worst humanitarian crisis in the world and that’s saying something right now – millions of people living in very, very desperate situation. Ending the war is the critical thing to actually improving their lot and their situation.
QUESTION: Yeah, it certainly is an awful situation. A State Department spokesperson has given the Trump administration credit for what’s called the Abraham Accords, the normalization deals that Israel worked on thanks to the Trump administration, with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, but at the same time you’re saying it can’t be a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian peace. So how exactly are you going to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, Wolf, yes, we applauded the Abraham Accords. This is an important step forward. Whenever we see Israel and its neighbors normalizing relations, improving relations, that’s good for Israel, it’s good for the other countries in question, it’s good for overall peace and security, and I think it offers new prospects to people throughout the region through travel, through trade, through other work that they can do together to actually materially improve their lives. So that’s a good thing. But as you said rightly, that doesn’t mean that the challenges of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians go away. They don’t. They’re still there. They’re not going to miraculously disappear. And so we need to engage on that. But in the first instance, the parties in question need to engage on that.
Look, the hard truth is we are a long way I think from seeing peace break out and seeing a final resolution of the problems between Israel and the Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state. In the first instance now, it’s do no harm. We’re looking to make sure that neither side takes unilateral actions that make the prospects for moving toward peace and a resolution even more challenging than they already are. And then hopefully we’ll see both sides take steps that create a better environment in which actual negotiations can take place.
QUESTION: I know that you, the Biden administration still supports what’s called a two-state solution —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s right.
QUESTION: — Israel, a new state of Palestine. But I understand that President Biden still hasn’t even spoken with Prime Minister Netanyahu; is that right?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, they spoke actually during the transition. I think one of the first calls that the President had was with the prime minister. I’ve talked to my Israeli counterparts on multiple occasions already. And you’re exactly right about the two-state solution: The President strongly supports it. It is the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, and the only way to give the Palestinians a state to which they’re entitled.
QUESTION: But is there a reason as President he still hasn’t spoken with Netanyahu? He’s spoken with so many other world leaders.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Oh, I’m sure that they’ll have occasion to speak in the near future.
QUESTION: Anxious to get your yes or no on some specifics, very sensitive issues. You’ve said the United States will keep the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. It used to be in Tel Aviv. Do you regard Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I do, yes. And more importantly, we do.
QUESTION: As part of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, would you support a Palestine having its capital in East Jerusalem?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, the – what we have to see happen is for the parties to get together directly and negotiate these so-called final status issues. That’s the objective. And as I said, we’re unfortunately a ways away from that at this point in time.
QUESTION: The Trump administration, as you know, also recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria back in 1967. Will your administration, the Biden administration, continue to see the Golan Heights as part of Israel?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, leaving aside the legalities of that question, as a practical matter, the Golan is very important to Israel’s security. As long as Assad is in power in Syria, as long as Iran is present in Syria, militia groups backed by Iran, the Assad regime itself – all of these pose a significant security threat to Israel, and as a practical matter, the control of the Golan in that situation I think remains of real importance to Israel’s security. Legal questions are something else. And over time, if the situation were to change in Syria, that’s something we’d look at. But we are nowhere near as that.
QUESTION: The President is facing a major challenge right now with the coup in Myanmar, where thousands of protesters have now taken to the streets. How does the U.S., though, speak with authority on democracy when people around the world saw our Capitol attacked and our democratic institutions pushed to the brink?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, Wolf, there’s no doubt that our ability to speak with that strong voice for democracy and human rights took a hit with what happened on January 6th and happened at the Capitol. But I’ve got to tell you I actually see the glass as half full on that, because we had a peaceful transition of power pursuant to our Constitution. The grievous assault on Congress – what happened? Members of Congress came back. They came back to the Senate. They came back to the House. They came back to the halls of Congress and they did their job pursuant to the Constitution to ensure that we had a peaceful transition of power.
You know this so well: Throughout our history, we’ve had incredibly challenging moments, and sometimes we’ve taken our own steps backward. But what’s made us different is our willingness, our ability, to confront these challenges with full transparency. We – in front of the entire world. And that’s very unlike other countries. When they face challenges, they try to sweep everything under the rug, ignore it, repress it, push it back. We’re doing this all out in the open. Sometimes it’s incredibly difficult. Sometimes it’s ugly. But I think we have a very strong story to tell about the resilience of democracy, the resilience of our institutions, and the determination of this country to always try to form a more perfect union.
QUESTION: I know you’ve got to run, but very quickly before I let you go, you and I both have family who survived the Holocaust. How does that shape your approach to your new role as the United States Secretary of State?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, Wolf, as we’ve talked about before, I think for both of our families, previous generations, they saw the United States as that last hope on Earth for them, for their futures, and it provided that hope. It made it real. And so I have an incalculable debt to my own country for what it’s done for my family, and I hope that this gives me the opportunity in a very small way to help return the favor and to make sure that the United States remains that last, best hope on Earth for people who need it.
QUESTION: And I’d echo those comments personally as well. Mr. Secretary, once again, congratulations on your new assignment. You’ve got a tough, tough road ahead. We’ll stay in close touch. Thanks so much for joining us.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Wolf. Great to see you.