MR BENJAMIN: Good evening. I’m Gerry Benjamin, president of Ahavath Achim Synagogue. On behalf of my fellow AA officers, directors, our trustee and clergy, it is my pleasure to welcome you to the 2022 Fran Eizenstat and Eizenstat Family Lecture Series, now in its 33rd year.
The Eizenstat Lecture Series long ago emerged as the crown jewel of our AA Marilyn Ginsberg Eckstein Cultural Arts Program, and we thank Marilyn for her most generous support of AA’s broad cultural arts program offerings. Our own Stuart Eizenstat, holder of multiple presidential appointed senior cabinet positions spanning from the Johnson to the current Biden administration, currently serves as special advisor on Holocaust issues to the U.S. Secretary of State, a position he has held multiple times previously following serving as an expert advisor on Holocaust issues during the Trump administration while he was serving as the head of the international practice of the Covington & Burling law firm based on Washington, D.C.
Stuart has assembled an unparalleled group of Eizenstat Lecture Series distinguished speakers, including renowned authors and eminent journalists, past U.S. presidents, vice presidents, presidential candidates, Nobel Prize recipients, secretary of states, and Supreme Court Justices. Of interest, I would direct our listeners to tonight’s online program, where you’ll find both Stuart’s magnificent biography as well as the fabulous list of past Eizenstat Lecture Series speakers.
This year we’re extremely privileged to have as our guest speaker the current and 71st U.S. Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken. The fact that Secretary Blinken has carved time out of his incredibly rigorous schedule to be with us tonight truly speaks volumes as to the degree of mutual respect that Ambassador Eizenstat and Secretary Blinken enjoy. Our deep gratitude to both Stuart and Secretary Blinken for being with us this evening.
Tonight Secretary Blinken will be sharing his thoughts on what I know we all will agree to be a most timely topic, 21st Century Global Challenges Facing the United States. These are truly complex times, both at home and abroad, and we are so fortunate to be able to garner the Secretary’s perspectives up close and personal.
Again, our sincere thanks to Stu Eizenstat and his family for their passionate commitment and support of this incredible lecture series, and to Secretary Blinken for joining us this evening as our featured guest speaker. Sit back and make yourselves comfortable, as I know that everyone will find tonight’s discussion to be unusually insightful. Thank you.
MR ROSENTHAL: Welcome, everybody, to the 33rd annual Fran Eizenstat and Eizenstat Family Memorial Lecture Series. We are grateful to Ambassador Eizenstat for making this night possible, grateful to have Secretary of State Antony Blinken as our featured speaker. I want to thank Evan Glover and the team at the State Department, the team at Lime Crane for making this platform possible, our congregation’s own Miriam Strickman Levitas, Jackie Nix, one of our staff members, and Lauren Dube, our communications director, for helping to make all this happen tonight. And we’re most grateful for you for joining us.
Each week we read a little bit of our Torah, a little bit as we make our way through the five books of Moses, and we follow along in the journey of the Jewish people and Moses as we make our way through to the promised land. We’re actually completing an interesting piece of that sacred text. As is often credited to the great German philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, the ideas that weave their way into all of our prayers and into our sacred stories, the idea of creation, redemption, and revelation, have already all played out.
Creation, we saw the book of – early book of Genesis. Redemption, the freedom from slavery in Egypt, slavery to Pharaoh, happened just a few weeks ago. And last week we celebrated standing together as a people on Mount Sinai and receiving Torah. So what’s left? We have three and a half books to go. What do we have to talk about if we hit the major points? And the truth is we have all the day-to-day work. But some of us might call it the grind. We have so much more to become a full people, to become spiritual beings, to make our way in, to a promised land.
And that’s very much what this conversation tonight will be all about. No doubt Ambassador Eizenstat is going to hit on the big headlines. That’s of course what many of us are here for. We want to hear what’s been in our heart, in our mind, what we’ve been watching on television. But I also want to make sure we hear the day-to-day. What happens between the headlines? What makes everything happen? No doubt Secretary of State Blinken will share all the process, all the people, all the work that goes on to make what we do, what our country does, happen.
I’m grateful for you for joining us, and I pray – it is my prayer – that we get to hold both the big headlines, the big stories that we’re here to hear about, but also we could hear the day-to-day, holding it all together, because both are holy.
Thank you for joining us this evening, and enjoy the program.
AMBASSADOR EIZENSTAT: Good evening and welcome to the 33rd Annual Fran Eizenstat and Eizenstat Family Memorial Lecture at the Ahavath Achim Synagogue in Atlanta. I established this annual lecture series initially to honor my late father Leo, then my mother Sylvia, my aunt and uncle Harry and Essie, and my wonderful wife Fran of 45 years because at this synagogue, I grew up here and my family has belonged since the early part of the 20th century. I want to thank Rabbi Rosenthal, Synagogue President Benjamin, our tireless executive director Gary Herman, Miriam Levitas, Janet Nix, for their invaluable assistance.
Fran was what we call in Hebrew an eshet chayil, a woman of valor. She believed deeply in tikkun olam, repairing the world. and was a leader in many Jewish and secular organizations and causes, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which helps needy people, including Holocaust survivors worldwide, the Children’s Defense Fund, and the Affordable Housing Division of Fannie Mae. She made deep and lasting friendships all over the world, but her greatest joy was her family, our two sons Jay and Brian, our eight grandchildren upon whom she lavished love and support.
Fran would have been particularly honored about tonight’s speaker, Secretary of State Blinken, who has arranged for taking his valuable time to be with us. He would have been in Atlanta with us in person but for COVID. But that has required us to do this visually and by virtual presentation, but frankly, there is a silver lining, and that it has allowed us to reach a much wider audience of literally thousands of people.
Over the 33 years of this annual lecture series, we have been fortunate to have many distinguished speakers, none more so than Tony Blinken. He is the sitting Secretary of State who literally has the weight of the world on his broad shoulders, as we all know from the headlines of the day. No one is more superbly qualified by intellect, background, experience, temperament, and closeness to the President to meet these challenges than Antony, Tony Blinken. I’ve personally seen him in action during my own service in government and have avidly followed his remarkable career over the years. I’m proud to call him a friend.
His family background helps explain why he holds the highest Cabinet post in the Biden-Harris administration and the values and world outlook he brings to the job. For me, this is almost a family affair. In the Clinton administration, I served with both his father Don Blinken, who was ambassador to Hungary, and his uncle Alan, who was ambassador to Belgium. The Secretary of State’s stepfather in Paris, where Secretary Blinken grew up, is the famous Holocaust survivor, the renowned Samuel Pisar – and author – and his mother Judith has been a champion of bringing the world together through the arts. His family roots include a grandfather who was an early supporter of the young state of Israel and an expert on its economy.
For over three decades under three presidents and in the United States Congress, Secretary Blinken has served with distinction in a remarkable variety of major positions. He was special assistant to President Clinton on the National Security Council staff, staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, working at the right hand of the then-chairman of the committee Joe Biden where he was known for his bipartisan collegial approach. He was deputy assistant to President Obama and national security advisor to Vice President Biden and then was elevated to deputy secretary of state.
When President Biden named him Secretary of State, Tony was only the third person in American history to serve as both deputy secretary and Secretary of State. And yet even this remarkable record at such a young age doesn’t tell the full story of Antony Blinken. He’s a proponent of backing up diplomacy with strong military capability, a robust U.S. economy, and democratic and moral values. Along with the President, he has been an architect of putting human rights into our foreign policy and fashioning America’s global role in fighting the current pandemic. He’s been working overtime to rebuild our shattered alliances in Europe and Asia and is respected and admired by his colleagues in the State Department where I am physically now, to whom he is always gracious and open, elevating the role of the career Foreign Service officers who had been underappreciated, to be diplomatic, in the previous administration. He’s been a lifelong supporter of Israel and its security.
I want to close the introduction by just saying that he and the President face a combination of challenges and opportunities unlike any we’ve seen since the end of World War II. Mr. Secretary, you honor the memory of my wife, my parents, aunt and uncle, by being with us tonight, but you honor all of us by your remarkable public service, and I look forward to a robust dialogue. Thank you and I’ll get right to questions, if you please.
There are so many hotspots around the world, Mr. Secretary. How do you see the world at this time and what are your greatest challenges? And are they the same you would have anticipated a year ago when you assumed this position?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, Stu, first of all, let me just say what an absolute pleasure it is to be with you, to be with all of the congregants, and to be with folks who are joining us online. I really wish that I could be there in person and I hope there’s another opportunity in the future to do that, but for the reasons you said, we have to rely on everyone’s favorite four-letter word, Zoom, so here we are.
But I also have to tell you what a – not just a pleasure, but an honor it is to be a part of this remarkable series, to pay tribute in this way to Fran’s legacy, to the remarkable achievements of your family. But also, I have to say especially to you in my time in Washington, which is almost 30 years now, there are few people that I’ve come across in all of that time who have been finer public servants for this country. And Stu, over the many years, you’ve taken on every single hard, but really hard assignment at the highest levels of government and done just a remarkable job – domestic policy, foreign policy, economic policy. There is nothing that has escaped your ambit, your expertise, and your determination to make us just a little bit better off, a little bit safer, a little bit more prosperous, a little bit more full of opportunity. So I really think, of the many public servants that I’ve met over the years, you are truly an amazing example.
And by the way, as I’m not sure that folks know, that continues today because we’ve been able to welcome you back to the State Department to resume this incredibly important portfolio, important in different and even more meaningful ways now, on Holocaust issues.
So it’s a long way of saying thank you for having me this evening, but mostly, thank you for everything you’ve done and continue to do in service to our country and in service to making the world just a little bit better.
And indeed, we have a handful of problems, a handful of challenges. And it’s worth remembering every administration has an inheritance – good, bad, indifferent. And we certainly had ours in the form of, of course, the global pandemic, a resulting global economic crisis. We have our own challenges here at home that we’ve been dealing with and a host of, I think, not just traditional problems in the sense of a re-emergence of great power competition, including with China and different ways as we’re experiencing right now with Russia, but also things that have not in a sense been the traditional purview of the State Department: the global health crisis and the need to focus on global health security; the climate crisis and the absolute imperative of focusing on that; all sorts of challenges in other areas including, in particular, emerging technologies that are having an impact on people’s lives.
So we’ve had to look at all of those things, but mostly, as we’ve gotten through the first year – and we can come back to this, Stu – we really wanted to start by re-laying the foundation of our foreign policy, and that is our alliances, our partnerships, our engagement in international organizations. We spent a good part of the past year re-energizing them, revitalizing them, and setting a foundation to be able to more effectively tackle the many things that are on our plate right now.
AMBASSADOR EIZENSTAT: Thank you very much. Let’s go to the issue of the day, Russia. And if you will, Mr. Secretary, to give you the maximum time to discuss the crisis, permit me to ask three sets of interlocking questions in order to avoid interruptions, and let you answer these as you will.
The situation in Ukraine had really not changed for several years since the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014 and the festering conflict in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. Why – the first set of questions – has the Russian President Putin chosen this time to aggressively build up forces of over 100,000 troops and heavy armor on its borders and in Belarus?
British intelligence has just disclosed that Putin intends to install a pro-Russian government in Kyiv. Is this consistent with U.S. views?
And what is the end game for Putin? Is he willing to really start a new cold war by invading Ukraine?
Second set of questions. You’ve ordered the reduction just in the last 24 hours of our staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. Does this indicate that you believe a Soviet invasion is imminent?
And is there still room for a diplomatic solution?
Putin, I understand, is awaiting written responses which you’ve promised from the U.S. and NATO. Based on the meetings you’ve had with Foreign Minister Lavrov, do you think those responses are likely to avert an invasion?
And third and last, what actions, including military assistance to Ukraine and to countries in NATO and the east, deploying U.S. and NATO to our allies there, economic sanctions like the Nord Stream pipeline and perhaps cutting Russia off from the SWIFT system, are the U.S., the EU, and NATO ready to put in place a deterrent?
And will our allies – and you’ve worked so hard and so well to put the Western alliance back together – will they stick together in this crisis?
Some critics say sanctions should be imposed now, even before there is an invasion. Do you think that is a valid point?
And will the sanctions differ upon whether there is a full-scale invasion or a more limited incursion or a cyber attack?
So these are sort of three sets of questions, and I wanted to get those out so you had the fullest opportunity without interruption to really bring us up to date about the crisis.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Stu, thanks, and that’s incredibly comprehensive and appreciated.
Look, I’m tempted to say with regard to the first set of questions that I wish your invited guest this year was Vladimir Putin and not me, because he would be much better placed to answer them.
Part of the challenge that we have is that, to some extent, the only person who really knows what comes next on the Russian side is President Putin. And I think that as we’ve seen him over the years, one thing that he likes to do is to make sure that he creates as many options as possible for himself going forward. And that seems to be one of the things that he’s doing now.
But let’s – just to step back for a minute and, first of all, remind ourselves indeed how we got here, and also – also what’s at stake, because I suspect for many Americans they see the Ukraine as being more than an ocean away. They wonder why this is so significant, why so much attention is being paid, why we are so focused on this, why we are spending so much time, energy, and effort in rallying allies and partners in defense of Ukraine and indeed even beyond Europe, around the world.
How we got here. First, as you alluded to, back in 2014 Ukrainians had reaffirmed the course that they wanted to put their country on, and that was closer association with Europe, a strong democratic future, one that they started a decade – well over a decade before that. But that was the course they were on.
And then a government came in, beholden to Moscow, that tried to reverse that and say that Ukraine couldn’t associate with the European Union, shouldn’t pursue a Western and democratic orientation. And the result of that was that a million people took to the streets, the Maidan protests. And the government began to fire on them, snipers, killing people, peaceful protesters. A crisis emerged, and a number of countries worked together to try to prevent the crisis from really spiraling out of control, to keep the violence from spiraling out of control, and to put Ukraine back on the course that its people had set it on. And we helped in that. Russia was actually a participant.
But ultimately, despite that effort, and despite the agreement to have elections six months later, and to keep the president beholden to Moscow in place until such elections, he winded up fleeing, the government collapsed. It was replaced on a – by a constitutional process with a new government that was not beholden to Moscow. And at that point the Russians intervened. They seized Crimea. They manufactured a crisis in eastern Ukraine, in the Donbas, to create a pretext for intervening there, as well. And that was 2014 and a decisive moment.
It followed, of course, Russia’s interventions some years before in 2008 in Georgia, and it also follows Russia having left forces and military equipment in Moldova against the will of its people and government.
All of this, to some extent, in the service of trying to keep these countries one way or another in Russia’s orbit. And whether it’s an actual reconstitution of the empire that President Putin rues the day was lost, or whether it’s something a little bit short of that, to re-establish a sphere of influence that would include these countries.
So to your question about what’s happening now, and why is this happening now, why this massing of forces by Russia along Ukraine’s borders, why the renewed threat, renewed aggression in Ukraine, again, you’d have to ask President Putin. But you hear different analysis of this, but it may be because, as Ukraine continued to pursue reforms, continued to try to strengthen its own democracy, continued its engagement with Europe and with the West, that perhaps he feared losing it inexorably. And all of that said, again, you’d have to ask him.
Another thing that’s striking is when you consider what President Putin has said, and when you consider the concerns that he’s expressed about the threat that he sees somehow to his security from NATO, bizarrely from Ukraine itself, virtually everything that he has expressed concern about, the things that he’s sought to prevent, he has precipitated by his actions.
Think about this: In 2014, before Russia went into Ukraine, before it seized Crimea, before it instigated this conflict in eastern Ukraine which continues to this day, before that Russia’s favorability ratings in Ukraine were 65, 70 percent. After that they’re down at about 25 or 30 percent. Before Russia went in, in 2014, support in Ukraine for joining NATO was about 25 or 30 percent. Now it’s about 60 percent.
Before Russia went into Ukraine in 2014, NATO Allies were sometimes laboring to meet goals that were set by NATO with American leadership to make sure that everyone was spending adequately on defense, 2 percent of GDP. Since 2014 we’ve seen real efforts by virtually every Ally made to meet the mark that was established by the Alliance, less because of anything the United States has said and done, and more because of concerns about Russian aggression.
And of course, after 2014 and Russia going in, NATO felt compelled to reinforce its eastern flank with more equipment and more forces on a rotational basis in the countries that border Russia, the very things that Russia says it doesn’t like. And I can predict to you that, especially if there’s renewed Russian aggression now against Ukraine, all of those trends will only be reinforced – again, in contradiction to President Putin’s stated goals.
So as a matter of Russia’s self-defined strategic interests, it’s, on one level, hard to explain. So that’s one piece.
The second piece that I want to spend just a minute on if I can, and then answer the other questions, is, again: Why should any of us care about this? What’s at stake for the United States, for countries around the world? Leaving aside our deep and heartfelt concerns for Ukraine and its right to be independent, to have its territorial integrity protected, to have its sovereignty protected, there are fundamental principles of international relations that are at stake, principles that were established after two world wars and a cold war in order to try to keep the peace, to try to provide security, to try to prevent the continent from falling back into conflict.
And these are principles like one country can’t simply change the borders of another country by force, as Russia has done with Ukraine. One country can’t simply decide for another its choices, its decisions, its foreign policy, including with whom to associate, as Russia is trying to do with Ukraine. One country can’t exert a sphere of influence that would subjugate its neighbors to its will, as, again, Russia is trying to do, not just with Ukraine, but with other countries in the region.
If we allow these basic principles to be violated with impunity, then we are opening a Pandora’s box that will be not only seen and felt throughout Europe, but around the world. And it will take us back to a time of division, conflict, and worse, that so many of us labored for many years to move beyond.
So the stakes are greater even than the fate of Ukraine. They’re greater even than the relationship between Europe and Russia, the United States and Russia. I think this is something of even global consequence, and that’s why we’re so focused on it.
So about a few of the recent developments, where we go from here.
First, with regard to the embassy drawdown, look, my number one responsibility in this job is to look out for the safety and well-being of the people who work for the State Department, the men and women of the department – Foreign Service officers, the civil servants – and their families and dependents. And one of the things we do around the world virtually every single day, as you know very well from your own service, is to make sure that in any place where Americans are serving, where there may be conflict, tension, hostilities, threats to them, we are extremely vigilant and we’re doing everything we can to protect them.
In the case of the decision made today to remove almost – principally dependents of our Foreign Service officers and others who are working at the embassy, this was the prudent thing to do – to make sure that in the event of conflict, they are out of harm’s way. So the vast bulk of the people we asked to leave today are family members. There are a lot of children of our team that are in Ukraine, and it just makes sense to make sure that they are out of the way and not caught in any crossfire should there be one. This is not indicative of anything that – anything new today that we have that suggests something is imminent. It is just the prudent thing to do to make sure that we have a smaller footprint, but one that it remains extremely robust and able to do everything necessary to support our relationship with Ukraine, to support the Ukrainian people. But of course we’ll track this every single day going forward, and to the extent that we have even greater concerns about the imminence of conflict we’ll, of course, look at taking other steps.
We’ve spent, Stu, as you’ve noted, a tremendous effort at working in very close coordination with allies and partners to do two things, and basically to offer Russia a choice – two paths that it can follow. One is the path of diplomacy and dialogue, and there we’ve proposed that there be meetings between us and Russia directly through something we call the Strategic Stability Dialogue. That’s something that we established after we – President Biden took office. We extended the New START arms control agreement, and in extending it we suggested that we should have a forum between us to look at whether there were future arms control steps that we could take together. And so we’ve used that as a way of engaging Russia on its purported security concerns in Europe.
Second, the NATO-Russia Council and reconvening that to deal with some of the concerns that Russia has expressed about NATO.
And finally, the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which brings together virtually everyone – 57 countries – to include Russia, to include the United States, to include Ukraine, to include all of our European partners and allies to look at the questions of broader European security.
And the Russians put forward in the dialogue with us and with NATO some papers raising their concerns. We have been working to put forward our own concerns as well as some reaction to the concerns they’ve put on the table and some ideas for how we might move forward to address, on a reciprocal basis, some of the concerns and strengthen collective security for everyone. And my anticipation in the wake of meeting Foreign Minister Lavrov last week is that we’ll share our paper with the Russians at some point this week. My expectation is NATO will do the same thing. And then we’ll see how Russia reacts, if it sees a basis for continuing to pursue dialogue, to continue to pursue diplomacy, which is by far the preferable course, the responsible course.
But at the same time, even as we’re looking to advance the diplomacy, advance the dialogue, we have to be – and we are – prepared when it comes to defense and deterrence. And so we have spent an equal amount of time building both of those up, working very closely with Europeans on putting together a very, very hard-hitting sanctions package. This is something that not only is the United States committed to but all of our allies and partners are as well. And you’ve heard the G7, the largest democratic economies in the world, make clear that in the event of renewed Russian aggression, there’d be massive consequences – and that’s a quote, “massive consequences” – for Russia. The EU, European Union, has said exactly the same thing and so has NATO, and we’ve been elaborating in great detail what those consequences would be when it comes to financial, economic, export control-related measures.
Second, we have continued to build up Ukraine’s defense capacity to give it the means to defend itself as effectively as it can. The President recently, back in December, issued a further drawdown authority to allow about $200 million in defense equipment to move to Ukraine. That was on top of drawdowns and other planned assistance that he’d done throughout the year. Last year, by the way, we provided more defensive support to Ukraine than in any previous year. And finally, we have elaborated plans to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank in the event of renewed aggression, and we’re taking some steps now, including steps announced today, to make sure that we are adequately reinforced. So all of those things are in the works.
You asked about sanctions and why not trigger them now. The main purpose of the sanctions is to have a deterrent effect to help, among other things, dissuade President Putin from taking aggressive action. If we trigger them, we lose the deterrent effect, and that effect is important and it’s cumulative of the many things that we’re doing. And so we want to make sure that the sanctions are there for the purpose that we intend them, which is in the first instance to prevent Russia from doing anything that renews its aggression, but if necessary, if it does, to impose very significant costs on Russia going forward.
AMBASSADOR EIZENSTAT: Thank you, Tony. I know that to deal with this issue of a limited incursion, the President’s statement was corrected very quickly, and the administration has been taking a position that an invasion is an invasion is an invasion. But how do you respond to that? Would these massive sanctions apply regardless of the extent of any incursion into Ukraine, if it were more limited to the eastern region or cyber? How would those be adjusted? And I worked on economic sanctions. I know that there are limits to the effectiveness, but they have to be done together. So tell me, and tell us, how the sanctions would apply given the options that, as you indicate, Putin has given himself.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, Stu, first let me be clear about a couple of things. The sanctions that we put together include a number of things that we have not done in the past. They go well beyond them. And as a result, I’m confident – it’s maybe almost the wrong word to use – because look, no one wants to go down this path, which is ultimately up to President Putin. But I’m confident they will in fact have massive consequences for Russia.
They’ll also have consequences for others, including us. There’s a cost imposed on everyone, but we have done a tremendous amount of work to mitigate any effects of sanctions on those willing them, imposing them, as well as any retaliatory action that Russia might take.
So, having said that, from our perspective, any renewed aggression that involves a Russian soldier crossing into Ukraine would constitute an aggression that will trigger, as I said, a massive response, a united response, a swift response. But to your point, we also know that in Russia’s playbook are many other tactics short of potentially sending military forces into Ukraine, despite the fact that roughly a hundred thousand are massed on its borders, to include cyber attacks, to include various hybrid actions, to include perhaps trying to in one way or another topple the government and substitute in a puppet regime that’s responsive to Moscow. And we’ve been equally clear that that too will trigger a swift, a calibrated, but also a united response, and one of the things we’ve been doing in working with our European partners is to make sure that across any of these scenarios we are fully in sync and ready to impose the necessary costs.
There’s one more thing that I think we have to be extremely wary of, because it’s also part of the Russia playbook, and that’s the potential for a so-called false flag operation – that is, Russia creating a provocation and thus a justification for any action it takes. And that’s something that we’re very, very on guard about as well. We don’t want people to be fooled by one of these false flags. And again, this is something we’re in very close contact with all of our European partners and allies on.
AMBASSADOR EIZENSTAT: Well, thank you for such a comprehensive description of the situation and our potential actions. Let’s move to China. They’re about to host the Winter Olympics. Historically, as you know, when a rising power challenges an established power, there can be friction, even wars. Can we avoid a new Cold War with China? After all, we have an unusual situation, really unlike Russia: Our economies are mutually dependent, we cooperate on climate change, they are supportive of limiting Iran’s nuclear capacity. But under President Xi Jinping, China has embarked, as you well know, on a much more aggressive foreign policy and a much more repressive domestic policy. In fact, you’ve yourself called their treatment of the Uyghurs genocide. Their militarization of the South China Sea, their Belt and Road Initiative, their overflights threatening Taiwan – just in the last day or so almost 40 warplanes over their airspace – their regional trade initiative – all of these are really quite provocative.
Do we see China as an adversary, an enemy, a competitor, or partner? Can we be more competitive in Asia by, for example, rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership? How do you see China with such a mixed picture?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, I think it’s clear to pretty much everyone that there is no more complex and no more consequential relationship than the one between our countries, and probably no relationship in all of its dimensions that will do more to have an effect in shaping the coming decades. So it is central to our foreign policy; it’s central to our focus, our thinking, as well as our actions.
Second, though, I think it’s – from my perspective, at least – impossible to sum it up in a bumper sticker. When you look at the relationship – and you just alluded to this very well – we see competitive aspects to it, for sure – and, parenthetically, nothing wrong with competition as long as it’s on a level playing field – we see still some cooperative elements, to include, as you mentioned, potentially on climate change, but a number of other areas; but we see increasingly as well adversarial aspects to this. And that is in large part because, as you said, this is in many ways a different China on the world stage over the last few years than we’ve seen in the last few decades: much more assertive, much more aggressive, whether it’s in the region or beyond, by a variety of means.
And as we’re thinking about this, I think there are some really important common denominators that are animating our policy and our approach to China across each of these dimensions: the competitive, the cooperative, the adversarial. One is that we are much better off and much more effective in dealing with China in each of these areas if we are doing so in coordination, collaboration with partners and allies. And that goes to what I was saying at the very outset, that one of the reasons that we’ve invested so much in revitalizing our alliances, revitalizing our partnerships, revitalizing our engagement in international institutions is to make sure that in dealing with China, we’re doing it together. Our combined weight makes a much bigger difference in terms of effect than when we’re doing it alone, even the United States.
Just to cite one example, when we’re engaging China on economic issues, in areas where we have profound differences and concerns about their practices, when it’s the United States taking this on alone, we’re 20 or 25 percent of world GDP. When we’re doing it in concert with partners and allies in Europe or in Asia, it’s 40, 45 percent, 50 percent of world GDP. That’s a lot harder for China to ignore. And across the board, we’ve been doing this to make sure that, among other things, we’re better placed to deal with the challenges posed by China.
Second, it makes sense to make investments in ourselves to make sure that we’re as competitive as we can be. And that too has been front and center in what the President’s done and continues to try to do. If you look at this over time, in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, we were the number-one or number-two country in terms of the investments we were making in ourselves – in education, in infrastructure, in innovation, research and development. We’ve slipped dramatically in each of those areas, and meanwhile China has risen up in each of those areas.
So if at a minimum we’re not making the investments in ourselves to be as competitive as we possibly can be, we’re shortchanging our ability to deal effectively with the challenges that China poses. And that’s a big part of why we’re seeking to make these investments, particularly when it comes to education, when it comes to infrastructure, and when it comes to innovation, research and development. If we have that kind of foundation in place – strong alliances and partnerships that increasingly converge around the right approach to China and sufficient investment in ourselves – we’re going to do very, very well in this competition across all of its manifestations. If we don’t, it’ll be harder. So the stakes are real and we’re pursuing them very, very vigorously.
AMBASSADOR EIZENSTAT: So there’s a bill that passed the Senate with very strong bipartisan support to increase our competitiveness and reduce our reliance on China for computer chips and other products. But it’s really languished in the House. Is the administration going to give priority to get that passed?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: In short, yes, we are – we have, we are. It should come together; it should pass. You’re referring to the CHIPS Act. And – among other names that it goes by, and this would be a major step forward in making exactly the kind of investments I’m talking about in ourselves, particularly in the semiconductor sector. So we hope that it does move forward; it should. But there are other things, Stu, that are so important that we’re doing.
And let me just step back for a second, if I could, because this goes to, I think, the broader approach that we’re taking. I mentioned not only the need and the work that we’ve done to revitalize our alliances and partnerships. And, of course, this is beyond – this goes beyond China. There are profound reasons for this across our foreign policy, and let me just – brief detour, brief parentheses.
It’s almost a cliché, but cliches are important because they usually have a foundation of truth to them. And we hear often and we say often that the nature of the problems we face today and that are actually having an impact on the lives of our citizens simply can’t effectively be addressed by any one country trying to deal with them alone, even the United States, for all of our power and resources. And so if you’re thinking about climate change, we’re 15 percent of global emissions. Even if we did everything right at home, that doesn’t account for the other 85 percent of emissions that we somehow have to help deal with. So we have a strong stake in working with other countries to try to deal with that.
Similarly, on the thing that is afflicting all of us and shaped this evening, COVID. We know from hard experience that as long as the virus is percolating anywhere, it may be developing new variants and those variants may come back and defeat the defenses and remedies that we put in place. So we have a profound stake in working with other countries to try to get COVID under control.
Emerging technologies, things that are really shaping people’s lives. We can’t govern all the norms, the rules, and standards that define how they’re used alone. It’s profoundly an international endeavor. And we need to be working with others and international institutions to do that, to exert our leadership. So that’s beyond China, even, a very fundamental and basic reason for this investment in alliances and partnerships, in international organizations.
But there’s a second piece to this, and that goes to our own leadership and engagement. Because here’s what we know: If we are not engaged, if we are not leading, then one of two things happens. Either someone else is – and probably not in ways that advance our interests and values, and what’s happened in recent years is increasingly that someone else has been China. As we stepped back, they stepped in, and that is not in our interest. And we see that in international organization after international organization where the day-in, day-out work of international relations gets done, where lots of rules and norms and standards that actually govern our lives in ways that most people don’t even see but feel takes place.
So we very much stepped in there. And across the board this engagement is important because, again, if we’re not doing it, someone else may be, or maybe no one is and that usually creates a vacuum into which bad things flow before good things do. So the approach that we’ve taken across the board is directly applicable to how we’re trying to deal effectively with China. And again, that involves shoring up alliances, partnerships; having a common approach; and making sure that the United States itself is once again engaged, once again at the table. You know the old expression: If you’re not at the table, you’ll probably be on the menu. We are and will remain at the table.
AMBASSADOR EIZENSTAT: That’s a great answer. I do hope we can find a way of having a bigger trade and investment and economic footprint in Asia as well.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: You’re exactly – Stu, you’re exactly right about that. I was just in Southeast Asia just before the new year, and one of the things we started to put forward is an affirmative economic framework and agenda for the region. It’s vitally important.
Here’s a good example of one of the things we are doing. You mentioned China’s Belt and Road Initiative. And let me say that, look, on one level the world desperately needs investment in infrastructure; and if China is providing some of that investment, a lot of that investment, that’s not inherently a bad thing. It could be a good thing, provided it’s actually done to the highest standards, not the lowest standards; that it’s a race to the top, not a race to the bottom.
One of the problems, leaving aside the strategic piece of why China is doing this, one of the problems we’ve seen just in terms of the way it goes about making these investments in infrastructure is it’s had a tendency to burden countries with tremendous debts that they couldn’t afford and couldn’t get out of, either in order to pay China back for these investments, having to divert resources from other parts of its economy, or, in effect, default and have China own the asset.
It’s often brought its own workers to build these projects at the expense of local workers. It’s done so —
AMBASSADOR EIZENSTAT: (Inaudible) 150,000 of them in Africa.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s right, exactly. And it’s often done so to shoddy construction standards, with little respect for the environment, and certainly no respect for workers and their rights. And there have been some interesting stories about that recently.
So it’s important to offer an affirmative vision, and not just a vision, an affirmative alternative. And that’s one of the things that we’ve done by putting forward and now building out something we call Build Back Better World, which, in partnership with the G7 countries and others, is a way of making significant investments in infrastructure around the world, but to high standards, not low standards, in ways that we think will be ultimately more attractive to the people on the receiving end. But look, if China wants to do this to the high standards, I’d welcome that. The world needs the investment.
Let me say one other thing about this. Look, I think that the notion of fully decoupling from China is a faulty one and in many ways potentially misguided. Again, done the right way, trade, investment, including with and from China, can be a good thing. But if the playing field is not level – and it’s not because of the many practices that China engages in – that is a problem that has to be very effectively addressed.
And second, when it comes to investments, when they go to particularly sensitive areas, sensitive technologies, sensitive industries, of course, we have to effectively guard against that, because when it comes to investments from China there is no distinction between the companies making them and the state. Any Chinese institution by law is beholden to the state, and anything that the investor does or learns ultimately is to the benefit of the state at any time. And given China’s unfortunate attitude toward human rights, toward privacy, toward intellectual property, it is with real peril that investments go forward in strategically meaningful industries, sensitive technologies.
But as you know, again, Stu, from doing this for so many years, when it comes to effectively guarding against problematic investments, or for that matter when it comes to making sure the technology that we export and others export doesn’t help benefit a country like China strategically, militarily, we are much better off doing this in a coordinated way with other countries.
And when it comes to investment, building a very high fence around a well-defined piece of territory, of land that really is strategic, that really would make a difference, as opposed to trying to erect a very low fence around everything, which we simply can’t do effectively, and would cut off commerce that’s actually beneficial, including to our workers and to our people.
So it’s a long way of saying that, as with most things, you’ve got to be tough and smart at the same time, and that’s what we’re trying to do.
AMBASSADOR EIZENSTAT: Thank you, Tony. Let’s move to Afghanistan. You inherited a very, very difficult situation. There was already an agreement that the Trump administration had reached with the Taliban to withdraw with very limited conditions by May of 2021. President Biden extended that to August 31st but with very few conditions.
Tell us what went right and what went wrong in Afghanistan as you look at it now. Many criticisms that we could have kept 3,000 troops there, as the President actually decided to do in Iraq. So what went wrong? What went right? And what lessons do we learn from this 20-year experience at having to attack because of 9/11 but then staying for 20 years with nation-building? So what is the lesson we take? But also reflect on, again, what went right and what went wrong.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, Stu, as you’ve said, we inherited a hand that had to be played. And among other things, we inherited an agreement that had been reached by the previous administration that required the United States to leave Afghanistan by May of last year. And in return, the Taliban, between the time that agreement was reached and May 2021, agreed that it would stop firing on U.S. and coalition forces, and also that it would not seek to pursue a massive offensive across the country that challenged the provincial capitals and other big population centers. It was continuing, of course, to continue to take up terrain around the country, but it held off from going after the big provincial capitals.
So that was the agreement that was in place. The Taliban also made some commitments that it would not harbor terrorists that would seek to attack us or allies and partners. And we had to decide – President Biden had to decide what to do about that agreement and the May deadline. So that was one of the very first things that we had to look at.
At the same time, to your point, we were engaged still in America’s longest war, 2 decades, 20 years. And we had to ask ourselves hard questions about what the merits would be of continuing that war – what could we achieve, at what cost, and would it be worth it?
So putting all of that together, the President was determined to end the longest war in our history to make sure that a third generation of Americans wouldn’t have to go and fight and die in Afghanistan. And he had the contours of the departure defined in advance by the agreement that had been reached by the previous administration.
The idea that some have put out that, well, we could simply have stayed as we were with, as you said, roughly 3,000 forces in Afghanistan and just continued in that fashion at, relatively speaking, a lower cost is simply not an accurate assessment of what actually would have happened and would have been required. Because had we stayed beyond the deadline imposed by the agreement – and as you noted, we extended our departure by a few months in order to be able to do it as deliberately as we could. But had we just said never mind, we’re staying indefinitely, we’re going to keep our 3,000 forces here, then two things would have happened.
One is the Taliban would have resumed its offensive actions against American and allied forces, and so the relative security in which they had been operating for the better – for a little more than a year since the agreement was reached would have evaporated, and we would have been forced to defend ourselves, which we would have done, but not with 3,000 forces. I can tell you, as the Secretary of Defense and others have said, that this would have required sending back to Afghanistan a substantial number of U.S. forces, in the tens of thousands, indefinitely. And again, to what end, which I’ll come back to in a minute.
Second and relatedly, the Taliban would have done what they actually did do, which is to commence an offensive against all of the provincial capitals in an effort to take the country. And 3,000 American forces plus some of our NATO partners would have been grossly insufficient to deal with that challenge, even in support of the Afghan forces.
So the choice was not between the status quo, as inherited with 3,000 forces there, and leaving. The choice was between leaving and re-upping the war with no obvious end in sight, and also with no clear strategic end in sight, because – and this goes to your larger question about the last 20 years – there was an absolute necessity to do what we did after 9/11 and go in and seek to deal with those who’d attacked us. That was the purpose. That was the mission. The mission was to go and to try to find and bring to justice those who attacked us and to make sure, to the best of our ability, that they would not be able to do so again. And that mission was largely achieved more than a decade ago. Bin Ladin was brought to justice now more than a decade ago. The ability of al-Qaida, the group that attacked us on 9/11, to perpetrate additional complex attacks of the kind that it made on 9/11 had been decimated.
But to your point, with very good intentions we not only extended our time in Afghanistan, we extended the mission to, in effect, nation building. And I think one of the lessons is that we have to be very, very, very thoughtful about these nation-building exercises, because we obviously didn’t succeed. We were not able to put in place over many years and billions and billions and billions of dollars of investment an Afghan government or Afghan security forces that could sustain themselves. And once the support that we were providing directly went away, it collapsed.
Now, I’d say that what pretty much everyone got wrong was in not seeing that the government and security forces would collapse as rapidly as they did. Even the worse-case scenarios that we had – and as you know too, Stu, from all the work you’ve done, the Intelligence Community always establishes a range of scenarios when it’s looking at the future, and it gives them one degree or another of confidence. Even the worst-case scenarios well into the summer nonetheless had the government and security forces staying in place, particularly in Kabul, well into the following year in the worse-case scenarios. So I think had we known that the government and security forces would collapse when they did, I’m sure there are things that we would have done differently, but that was not the foundation that we were working from.
Now one of the things I’ve done as Secretary is to make sure that we go back with an independent internal look at what we did, how we did it, and what we could do differently or better. And that work is ongoing and we have a very highly respected former senior diplomat who has come back to lead that effort, that internal review, and the results will be important in helping us think about the future and guide us in these efforts. But —
AMBASSADOR EIZENSTAT: I think it’s important for everyone to know that that intelligence assessment you mentioned, upon which the administration had a right to rely, was not just U.S. It was widely shared by our NATO Allies as well that we did have many, many months when the government, we thought, would sustain itself after we left.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s exactly right. And look, I think this is a – these are collective assessments, and it’s also fair to say that by and large the State Department had this assessment. The military had this assessment. This is not just the Intelligence Community. It’s all of us collectively as a government believed that the government, the security forces, would still be around well into the following year, and even in the worse-case scenarios.
So that’s important in and of itself and it’s something we are looking at across the board, trying to make sure we understand how we came to those conclusions – and again, not just us, a number of administrations going back before us.
And to – finally, to your point, Stu, even as we look at what happened in the last year and in the last months, it is vitally important that we also look at what’s happened over the last 20 years at a series of decisions, assessments that were made, that shaped our policy toward Afghanistan and to ask ourselves hard questions about those decisions, about those assessments, so that we’re better informed going forward in other situations that may arise around the world.
Last thing I’ll say on this: We remain very focused on the Afghan people, and they are facing a humanitarian catastrophe. They’re facing a potential economic catastrophe. And we’re doing everything we can along with other countries to try to address that. So we remain the largest single contributor to humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan. We’ve been working very hard to make sure that that assistance can get to where it’s needed. We’re doing this, of course, with the United Nations and through NGOs, not through the Taliban. But we’ve also wanted to make sure that other countries would feel confident in providing their own assistance, so we’ve issued a series of general licenses to make sure that they knew that they could do this and not run afoul of the sanctions that remain on the books.
We’ve done the same thing at the United Nations. We’ve released significant funds from something that was called the Afghanistan Trust Fund that was put in place to support the previous government. Before the Taliban, the international community through this trust fund was providing 75 percent of Afghanistan’s annual budget. So when that goes away, you can imagine the problems. So we’ve had some of those funds restored – not, again, going to the Taliban, but going to those who are in Afghanistan trying to help the people.
And we’re looking at ways to make sure there’s some more liquidity in the economy so that it can function, and particularly ways to get money into people’s pockets, humanitarian workers, teachers. We want girls to be educated. They’ve got to have teachers to educate them and potentially even civil servants, because if they don’t have any basic subsistence they’re not going to be able to provide for their families and survive.
So we’re looking at all of that even as we’re determined to hold the Taliban to the commitments the – it’s made and that the international community insists on, to include making sure that it’s – Afghanistan is not used as a haven for outwardly directed terrorist attacks; to make sure that the basic rights of the Afghan people are upheld, especially women and girls; to make sure that the Taliban doesn’t engage in acts of retribution and violence. And all of those things and more are necessary and will shape whatever relationship the Taliban has with the rest of the world.
AMBASSADOR EIZENSTAT: And does that include getting more of the Afghans out who had helped us during the war?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Absolutely, and let me say two things about that that are important and I think have not been fully understood in the midst of all of this.
First, American citizens. When we first took office, there were a number of American citizens in Afghanistan, and we began to message them starting in March, well before the President made his decision and well before, of course, the government and the security forces collapsed, encouraging them and then urging them to leave the country. We don’t have in any country specific knowledge of how many Americans, blue passport holders, might be there at any given time, because as an American you’re not required when you go someplace to register with the embassy or the State Department.
And so we never know in any country in the world exactly how many Americans are there at a given time, whether they’re resident there or whether they’re just simply passing through as tourists, on business, education, whatever. But we very aggressively messaged those that we knew of. We have those who had registered with the embassy, social media, et cetera – 19 separate messages between March and August of 2021.
Despite that and despite the deteriorating situation, and then in the summer the increasingly rapidly deteriorating situation, by the time of the evacuation, by the time of the collapse of the government and the security forces, there were roughly, to the best of our knowledge, roughly 6,000 blue passport holders still left in Afghanistan. And there’s a good reason for that, and it’s something that I don’t think people fully understood. Despite everything that had happened, despite the overall situation in Afghanistan that was there for a long time, despite the then-deteriorating situation, despite the announcement of our departure, why are there still 6,000 Americans left? It’s because virtually every single one of them was a long-term resident of Afghanistan whose families were there, whose livelihoods were there, whose lives were there.
And as you know well, to pick up and leave everything you know behind is one of the hardest decisions you can make in anything that you do in life. And so that was the community that was left. It was not people who had gone to Afghanistan three months before and got stuck there. It was people who for one reason or another had a blue passport, many dual citizens who didn’t want to give up their lives, their livelihoods, their families despite the situation.
We managed during the two or so weeks of the evacuation to get almost every one of them out. But when we left on August 31st, there were still, to again the best of our knowledge, some hundreds who remained because for one reason or another, they chose not to try to leave during the evacuation or couldn’t get to the airport given – or into the airport given the incredibly difficult security situation.
But as I said at the time, as the President said at the time, there was no deadline to bringing out any American who said that they wanted to leave and asked for our assistance to do so. And since the 31st, working with other countries, notably Qatar, to whom we’re really grateful, we have brought out almost 500 American citizens who told us that they wanted to leave and sought our help to do so. And then another several hundred have gotten out by other means, not with our direct assistance, although with some facilitation. And that continues.
Any American who steps forward and says – who remains and says they want to leave we will get out. To the best of our knowledge, at this point we’ve given the opportunity to everyone who’s said that they’re prepared to leave to do so. But what’s also happened, Stu, is that people who told us at one point that they didn’t want to leave changed their minds and decided that they do. And so the number is never totally static. It’s evolving, and I suspect that in small numbers, people may continue to come forward and we will do everything we can do bring them out, just as we have successfully done over the last four or five months.
AMBASSADOR EIZENSTAT: Thank you. Another issue on your very crowded table is Iran. Again, you inherited a very difficult situation. We had an agreement that was working, 2015, and which the previous administration withdrew. And now Iran has escalated its enrichment and it’s closer to a breakout period than it had been under the previous agreement.
I know that there have been very intensive negotiations, Rob Malley and others, working with the Iranians and with the so-called P5 countries plus Germany. Where are we, how close are we to an agreement? And is it simply going to be getting back to the old agreement? Even less perhaps than that? Will it leave the same sunset provisions and missile issues and others that critics complained about? So where are we on Iran? This is an existential threat to Israel. It’s an existential threat to eastern parts of Europe. And perhaps you can give us an idea of whether we are close to an agreement and the nature of that agreement.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Stu, it’s important to start by stepping back for a minute and reminding ourselves why the initial agreement was reached in the first place, why the Obama administration pursued it and secured it. And that was because, simply put, for all of the malicious activities that Iran is engaged in throughout the region and beyond, an Iran with a nuclear weapon or with the ability to produce one on very short order, to be able to break out to such a weapon very quickly, would be an Iran that acts with even greater impunity in all those areas. And an Iran with a nuclear weapon represents, as you said, an existential threat to Israel, to other countries in the region, and potentially a very serious threat to us, not just in the region but even here.
So the administration focused on making sure that we could do whatever was necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring such a weapon. And it looked at every possible way of doing that, and the conclusion was that the most effective, sustainable way of doing that was through an agreement. And it secured such an agreement, with the most intrusive inspections regime of any arms control agreement, with some lengthy sunsets to the agreement, and of course the ability, if Iran broke out of it, to do something about it because at the heart of the agreement was the fundamental proposition that as a result of the constraints that were put on Iran’s program, if it decided to break out and try to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon, it would take it at least a year to do so and we would have plenty of time to deal with it. And we focused on the fissile material piece of this because there’s a huge production chain required to mine the feed stock, to build the centrifuges, to process all of this in very large facilities, all of which are fairly visible and you can do something about it if you have to.
There’s another piece to the program, as you know, that’s critical, and that’s the actual weapon or weaponization. You get the fissile material but you’ve got to have a weapon that can explode to put it into. And there, as a matter of public record, the assessments have been that Iran is some ways away from actually being able to have a weapon. It’s stopped by, again, public accounts – it stopped its weaponization program back in 2003. But should it turn it on again, the weaponization piece is a lot harder to see and a lot harder to do something about because if you’re trying to come up with an actual weapon, you’re probably doing it in a room someplace on a computer and in a relatively small facility.
So the agreement that was reached back in – under the JCPOA focused on the fissile material and effectively put Iran’s nuclear program in a box. And I have to say that of all the recent decisions made in American foreign policy over the last five or 10 years, I think possibly the worst one was pulling out of that agreement. We were promised that it would be replaced by a stronger agreement. That didn’t happen. To the contrary, Iran then used that as an excuse to restart the most dangerous aspects of its program, to begin enriching fissile material at 20 percent, 60 percent, threatened to do it at 90 percent – the agreement capped it at 3.67 percent – all of which means that you can produce fissile material that is weapons-grade very, very, very quickly. It began spinning more sophisticated centrifuges, all of which were prohibited by the agreement. And it started to disrupt the activity of the international inspectors, who were giving us tremendous visibility on every aspect of the program.
So again, far from getting a stronger agreement, we have an unleashed Iran that is moving forward with great speed on its fissile material program and bringing us back to even worse than the place we were at before we reached the agreement some years ago.
Second, it was promised that Iran would cease or curb its aggressive actions throughout the region. Has that happened? No. Exactly the opposite. During the negotiation of the original agreement and then during the time that was in existence before we pulled out, there was a significant diminution in Iranian or proxy attacks on us throughout the region. Well, that’s now skyrocketed once again in Syria, in Iraq, and we now see as well in Yemen through their Houthi partners’ attacks on the Saudis, on the Emiratis – all of this increased.
So I go through all of that simply to say that all of this is happening in a context. We have to pick up the pieces of the disastrous decision to pull out of the agreement. And for whatever it’s – any agreement has imperfections; any agreement, because it’s the product of negotiation, is going to have elements in it that people don’t like and in an ideal world would prefer to avoid. For example, of course part of the other side of the agreement was lifting sanctions on Iran, the sanctions that had been put in place and vigorously enforced by the – first by the Bush administration and then by the Obama administration, in part to get the Iranians to the table to negotiate. But mostly the sanctions that were lifted involved lifting restrictions on countries and banks that prohibited them from sending to Iran the proceeds of Iranian oil sales to those countries. And so in effect, when those were lifted, the agreement was paid for with Iran’s own money. And sure, you would prefer that they not get a dollar. But when you’re negotiating, the other side has to get something, and that was what it got.
So now, to – excuse me – to fast-forward to today, we are looking at whether it’s possible to return to mutual compliance with this agreement, with the JCPOA, because it remains in our estimation, of all of the imperfect choices we have, the – still the best way to try to put Iran’s nuclear program back in a box and to allow us to at the same time deal with all of the other excesses in Iranian policy because nothing in the agreement in any way prohibits us from going after, sanctioning, dealing with the other things that Iran does that we profoundly object to.
We’re very, very close to the end of the runway on the ability to get back into this agreement because what’s happened is, is Iran has been moving forward on its program. Two things. It is getting to the point where its breakout time, the time it would take to produce fissile material for a bomb, is getting down to a matter of a few weeks, and that in and of itself is something that should not be sustained over time. That’s not the kind of world that we want to live in.
Second, it continues to acquire knowledge and build up expertise such that at some point in the relatively near future, even going back to all of the restrictions of the JCPOA will not recapture sufficient nonproliferation benefits, arguably, to justify doing that, because of everything Iran has learned that would allow it to break out, even with the JCPOA restrictions, at a much faster rate. And so we’re getting very close to that point. I can’t tell you as we gather this evening whether we’ll get back to mutual compliance. I think that’ll be decided in the next few weeks, because again, this can’t – given what Iran is doing, we can’t allow this to go on. Our allies and partners in Europe feel the same way.
I’d say interestingly, the Russians, who are part of this process, also have a sense of urgency. And we’ll see what happens. And if we’re not able to do that, we have been immersed in working out what we will do to deal with this problem by other means.
AMBASSADOR EIZENSTAT: So Tony, thank you very much. We have two minutes left, and just two quick questions.
One, the Middle East peace process. Is a two-state solution now impossible, given the expansion of settlements and the Palestinian unwillingness to negotiate? And if so, can anything be done to improve the plight of the Palestinians and the security of Israel?
And then last, reflect on things that are not in the headlines today, the opportunities and challenges that keep you awake at night and that we should be looking forward to to avoid the next crisis.
So just quickly on the Middle East, and then what you think about in the distant future that’s not on our radar screen now.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, look, we continue to very much believe in a two-state solution and its necessity, whether it’s tomorrow, or whether it’s next year, or whether it’s more years down the road, for the simple reason that there is no other way forward that we can see that both gives to the Palestinians the state that they deserve and preserves Israel as not only a secure, but also a Jewish and democratic state. So – and none of the alternatives give you that. So we continue to believe it is the – not only the best, but ultimately the necessary way forward.
Having said that, the present environment, for the reasons that you state, is not right now conducive to getting there. So I think we have to build back a different will, approach, attitude on all sides to see if that is once again possible.
But in the meantime, I think it’s vitally important that we address, among other things, the living conditions and opportunities for Palestinians to try to make sure that their lives are just a little bit better. That’s the right thing to do; it’s the humane thing to do. And also from Israel’s perspective, I think it’s the smart thing to do. So we are looking at that in in a variety of ways. Of course, all of this undergirded by our fundamental commitment to Israel’s security, something that President Biden believes to his core, and has believed from his very first days in the United States Senate, when he made his first trip as a senator to Israel and met a prime minister by the name of Golda Meir. And he’s worked with every Israeli prime minister since then.
So all of this is undergirded by that commitment, but also our conviction that the best way forward for Israel as well as for the Palestinians is through two states, and in the meantime, finding ways to improve the lives and livelihoods of Palestinians.
AMBASSADOR EIZENSTAT: (Inaudible.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Finally, to your last few last question, gosh, there’s a lot that could or should be said about that. But I’ll just say this: I think what we fundamentally have to be oriented by is the notion that when we really think about it, in an increasingly complex world where power dynamics are shifting all the time, where we have an incredible complexity of issues, again, as I said, from the re-emergence of great power competition to challenges that remain from extremist groups to these fundamentally powerful phenomena that truly affect the lives of our people – global health, climate, the impact of emerging technologies – for all of that, I still come back to a fundamental proposition, and that is that, for all that I’m trying to do with my colleagues around the world, so much of this starts at home.
And if we were gathered, Stu, 50 or 75 years ago, and we were asking ourselves this question – what constitutes the wealth of a nation and the wealth of our nation – I think the answer we’d give back then was, well, you sort of define the wealth of the nation by the expanse of its landmass, the size of its population, its abundance of resources, the strength of its military. And all of those things are still important, and happily, as the United States, we continue to be blessed with all of them.
But I think what we’ve come to recognize is that, especially in our time, the true wealth of the nation is really defined, first and foremost, by its human resources, by the potential that any country gives those human resources to really realize themselves. And that means that we really have to continue to focus and start at home in terms of making the investments that are necessary in our own people, in our human resources, to give them that opportunity. And if we do that, that goes directly, directly to our strength, our capacity, our leadership around the world. The world’s looking at that. They are judging us in part by that. And so I hope, most of all, that even as we’re engaged around the world, we find ways to come together at home. And if we could do one thing that would actually advance our standing in the world, advance our leadership, advance our strength, it would be that.
AMBASSADOR EIZENSTAT: Tony, in diplomatic terms, this is a remarkable tour de table that you’ve given us for almost an hour and a half of your time. And it reinforces in the most profound way my heartfelt appreciation for honoring the memory of my family, my wife, but also, more broadly – and really, more importantly – the remarkable talent that you bring to perhaps the second-most important job in the world, next to the President of the United States, and it underscores that our State Department, our foreign policy, is in very sturdy hands.
Thank you for your service, thank you for everything you’re doing every day of the week to keep our world a better place. Thank you very much.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Stu, thank you for having me this evening. Thanks to all of you. And thank you for your extraordinarily generous words, both at the start and just now. I’m going to ask that they be written down, and that you send them to my mother.
AMBASSADOR EIZENSTAT: Well, they have the value of being accurate.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you.
AMBASSADOR EIZENSTAT: Thank you.