SECRETARY CLINTON: So, Secretary Blinken, welcome. I cannot express how pleased I am to have this chance to talk with you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. I could not be happier to be able to spend some time with you. I’ve had the good fortune to have spent a lot of time in these halls with you in the past, at the White House over many years, but it’s particularly fun to be connected via the podcast.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Oh, I agree. So let me ask you, what have your first few weeks as Secretary of State looked like and felt like to you?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, you know this better than anyone. It’s a little bit like jumping onto a treadmill that’s already moving at 10 miles an hour, and partly it’s just trying to hold on. But you know – obviously, because of COVID it’s been a challenge, and there’s a little bit of frustration that comes with that. I remember so well when you became secretary, you were off almost immediately on that airplane visiting with, working with, engaging with our allies and partners and others around the world. I wish I could do the same thing, but we’re grounded.
Now, the good news is I’ve been burning up the phone lines. I’ve been saying that it’s a good thing the department’s on the family plan, otherwise I would have bankrupted the budget. So there’s that. But, of course, you know as well as anyone, better than anyone, it’s just not the same thing. So I’m really looking forward to being able to get out there.
But what’s been so gratifying is because I’ve been doing this for a while – I started working for President Clinton in 1993, and my first job was here at the State Department working in the front office of the European Affairs Bureau, and so I’ve known the men and women of the department for a long time. And the greatest pleasure I’ve had since I’m back is just reconnecting with people that you and I know so well.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes. Well, I can imagine what that’s like for them as well, Secretary, because it’s been a tough four years for our Foreign Service officers and our Civil Service officials, and it’s important to do what you’re doing, which is spending time with them, talking with them, listening to them. I read where you said you felt confident and humble, and I thought that was a really good combination as you embark on this important job.
You run a department with tens of thousands of Foreign Service officers, as I say, civil servant officials, and we have national employees out around the world.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yes.
SECRETARY CLINTON: And you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to make all of that work, especially since I think it’s fair to say you’re facing a deficit, a deficit of trust and a deficit of leadership, that the prior administration left you. So how are you trying to prioritize the myriad of challenges and opportunities that you’re looking at?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, you’re exactly right that, in a sense, the first challenge is actually the building, the institution, the men and women of the department; the Foreign Service officers, the civil servants, and, as you rightly point out, what we call locally employed staff, the thousands – the tens of thousands – of extraordinary men and women from the countries that are hosting us who work with us and work for us.
And so one of the things that’s been so important in this early going is to make it very clear to all of our colleagues that we’re going to be relying and depending on them – their expertise, their experience, their professionalism. And so I think one of the things we’re going to show and people will see in the weeks ahead as some of the senior appointments are made, we’re going to be relying heavily on career professionals. They bring so much to the table, and it would be really to operate with our hands tied behind our backs if we didn’t rely on that and use that.
The other piece when it comes to the institution itself is, and this is something I feel very strongly about, we have to have a Foreign Service, we have to have career professionals, we have to have a State Department, that looks like the country it represents. And that’s been a real deficiency for a long, long time.
So I’m about to appoint the very first chief diversity and inclusion officer, who will report directly to the Secretary of State. We’re going to focus on making sure we’re recruiting effectively, we’re retaining people, and that there’s actual accountability for making progress. If we get the human resource piece of this right, then we’re going to be so much more effective around the world in representing the country and in carrying out the President’s foreign policy.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, starting with the work you’ve begun, I was fascinated about how both you and President Biden started close to home. You reached out to our Canadian friends and our Mexican friends, And that’s so important because establishing that strong relationship, especially during a time of COVID, and obviously what we have going on our southern border, makes a lot of sense. But you and the President have both reached out to Europe. How are our friends and allies feeling with the new administration? Can you give us any early updates on that?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I think it’s fair to say that there’s been a very warm welcome for President Biden and for all of us who’ve come along with him, and quite honestly, a thirst almost palpable for American engagement. And this is what I’ve heard in conversation after conversation. That doesn’t mean we don’t have differences, we won’t have problems, we won’t have challenges, but I think there’s a recognition that, in fact, they’re better off when we’re engaged. And, of course, we’re better off.
When we’re thinking about the world that we’re facing and confronting, I think two things really stand out, and this is what animates the President’s thinking, and as a result, animates our foreign policy. The first is whether we like it or not, the world tends not to organize itself.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Exactly.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: And when we’re engaged and leading, we can help advance our own interests and values. But when we’re not, then one or two things is likely to happen. Either some other country is going to try to take our place, but probably not in a way that advances the interests and values of the American people. Or maybe just as bad, no one does, and then you’ve got a vacuum and it’s usually filled by bad things before it’s filled by good things.
So that premium on American engagement is really there. But the related maybe flip side of that is – and again, I know this animated you so strongly as secretary – when we look at the things that are really going to have an impact on our fellow citizens’ lives, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s this pandemic, whether it’s the spread of a lethal – a really dangerous weapon of mass destruction, we know that not a single one of those challenges can be effectively dealt with by any one country acting alone, even the United States, and also that there really is no wall high enough or wide enough to guard against those problems.
So the other premium we find is on cooperation and finding new ways to get countries to work with us and to work with them. And that’s kind of where the State Department comes in. That’s our job. The job of diplomats is to try to build that cooperation among countries to deal with the challenges that are actually going to have an impact on the lives of our fellow citizens.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, that is exactly the definition of the job. And I hope that during your service, that you, working with the President and others in the administration, can make that case more effectively. Because it’s always a challenge to talk to the American people about what it is diplomats do, what development means, why it makes a difference.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah.
SECRETARY CLINTON: People get the Pentagon, they get the Defense Department, but they’re not quite sure about what the other stuff is. And to that point, I know that there are so many crises and conflicts that you are going to be facing from Afghanistan to Ethiopia, Syria, Venezuela, and then some long-term challenges posed by Russia, and most particularly China. And I was interested in some of what you and the President have been saying about Russia, and how you’re going to try to really send a clear message to Vladimir Putin that the former president is gone, we’re going to be imposing costs and consequences for behavior that is really out of bounds.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, unfortunately, we’ve seen that in so many different areas. And the bottom line is if we’re not standing up strongly when our interests are being challenged or when our values are being challenged, that creates a feeling of impunity. And then the bad conduct continues and gets worse. But in any of these things, it’s vitally important that we do it with our partners and allies, but just on Russia, we are in the midst of reviewing a series of egregious actions that they’ve taken.
Whether it is this SolarWinds cyber attack that’s been written about; whether it is what they’ve done to one of Mr. Putin’s leading political opponents, Alexey Navalny, using a chemical weapon to try to kill him; whether it is these reports of the Russians putting bounties on our troops in Afghanistan; whether it’s something you are all too familiar with: interference in our elections. We are looking at all of this, and I can tell you with some confidence that we will take the appropriate actions as we see fit to make very clear that this kind of conduct is unacceptable for us, and we’ll do it with our allies and partners.
At the same time, we have other important stakes, including with Russia. One of those is what we call in the business strategic stability, making sure that with our still significant arsenals, particularly of nuclear weapons, that we don’t do things that actually make conflict and, God forbid, a nuclear exchange more likely. And so one of the very first things, as you know, that President Biden did is he extended the sole remaining but very important agreement between the United States and Russia, the so-called New START agreement that puts significant limitations on our strategic nuclear arsenals. And that’s a very good thing for both countries.
And we’ll look for opportunities to do more. But I think we have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time – stand up strongly against Russian aggression – Ukraine continues to be a huge problem, given Russia’s intervention there – but also look for opportunities, if they present themselves, to advance our security on things like nuclear weapons.
SECRETARY CLINTON: It would also be really worth trying to get China for the first time into arms control agreements.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yep.
SECRETARY CLINTON: How is the administration looking at China? Because again, we have to cooperate where we can on climate change, on global health. But then there is all the rest that we have to take some strong stands over. How are you thinking about China, Secretary?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So as you know so well, it is both one of the most complicated relationships in the world, and arguably one of the most – if not the most – consequential. And I think it’s important for people to see that there are different aspects to it. There’s an adversarial aspect increasingly, because China has been acting more aggressively beyond its borders, and unfortunately more repressively within its borders. There is certainly a competitive aspect to it. But there is also a cooperative one, because on some big issues, including climate change, we both have an interest in finding ways to work together.
But here is the common denominator. Whether it’s the adversarial piece, whether it’s the competitive piece, whether it’s the cooperative piece, we need to be approaching China from a position of strength. And what I think that means is a few things. It means with our partners and allies, not without them. Those alliances, those partnerships are a source of strength in dealing with China. When we bring the collective weight of our partnerships and alliances to bear, it’s a lot harder for China to ignore.
Also, as we were talking about just a few minutes ago, being engaged and leaning in as opposed to abdicating our responsibilities and pulling out of all of these international organizations that are actually shaping the rules that we all have to live by. When we pull back, China fills in. When we’re engaged and leading, that’s a source of strength.
Third, it’s a source of strength for us to actually stand up for the values we believe in. So when we see in Xinjiang Uyghurs being put into concentration camps, when we see democracy being trampled in Hong Kong, it’s important that we stand up and point that out, that we don’t ignore it, and that we get others to join us.
And then finally, and maybe most importantly, we have to be investing in ourselves, in our own people, in our own workers, in our own companies, in our own competitiveness. Because if we do that, and if we get a reasonably fair and level playing field, we’re going to do just fine in the competition. I have tremendous confidence. But if we don’t do it, that’s going to allow China to be acting from a position of strength, not the United States.
Oh, and there’s a last thing, too, that I think is so important. We also have to be strong and resilient in terms of our own democracy. Because when we’re questioning our own institutions, when we’re attacking each other, that is the surest way to undermine the strength that we need to bring to this strategic competition with China.
So I hope – particularly because this really is in many ways a bipartisan challenge – I hope that we can come together so we can do this smartly, effectively, and advance the interests of the country.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, it needs to be bipartisan, even nonpartisan, because how we structure our relationship with China going forward will have such serious implications. And you have several times stressed the importance of our alliances, working with our partners, and the significance of international agreements. And I was really delighted to see that the administration quickly went back into the Paris accord on climate change, and I know you’ll be working very hard on that. And you’re also working to see if we can somehow reconstitute the Iran agreement that put a lid on Iran’s efforts to get a nuclear arsenal.
And just to go to that point you made about working with others, when I was in the Senate for eight years, I voted for every sanction against Iran that was ever put up for vote. And you were there working on – with Senator Biden at that time.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yes.
SECRETARY CLINTON: And we did everything we could to try to limit their options, to put pressure on them. But without the world, it didn’t matter. And so as Secretary, I started working to put together international sanctions, which then the UN Security Council passed in June of 2010, and we began negotiations, which were then completed in the second term of President Obama. And what people who pop up and talk about international agreements often really do an injustice to our understanding is to act as though there’s a perfect agreement somewhere and all we have to do is pick up a rock and find it. Negotiations are difficult, they are time-consuming, and oftentimes, you don’t get 100 percent but you get as much as you can. And with the Iran agreement, I think we got a long way towards stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, all of which was then thrown out the window by the Trump administration.
So do you look to see how you’re going to be able to bring that alliance back together, which included China and Russia by the way, to try to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Absolutely. And to your point, I think it really is important to understand that by definition negotiations are always going to be imperfect. No one gets 100 percent of what they want. But as President Biden likes to say, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative.”
SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes. (Laughter.) Right.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: And that’s really important. So the foundation that you set, first in the Senate but then as secretary of state, is what allowed us to get the agreement that we reached. And I feel very strongly that that was the right thing to do. Because as we both know, before the agreement Iran was speeding toward the day when it would have the ability to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon on very short order. At the time we reached the agreement, it was getting down toward weeks. And that would have given us a very, very hard choice to face, either between allowing that to happen and Iran having a nuclear weapon or being on the threshold of having one, and thus feeling it could act with even greater impunity, or maybe having to take military action with all of the possible unintended consequences that flow from that to deal with it.
And so I think the best answer that we came up with was the agreement that was reached that put the nuclear program in a box and that cut off its pathways to being able to produce the material it would need for a weapon, and push that so-called breakout time past one year, so that if they did start back in that direction we’d have plenty of time to organize the world and to do something about it. We had very strong sanctions that were poised to snap back if Iran violated the agreement, and maybe most important, the most intrusive monitoring and inspections regime that we’ve ever had for any arms control agreement. And our own intelligence folks say it was – Iran was respecting its commitments, even if it’s doing a lot of other things that we don’t like.
So now, after we got out of the deal, Iran felt well, we can go ahead and no longer comply with the obligations that we undertook, and it is now getting back to that point where it could produce fissile material for a weapon on very short order. So I think we have an interest in putting that back in a box and then seeing if we can actually build something even longer and stronger in terms of the duration of the agreement, and also dealing with some of the other actions that Iran takes that we have a real problem with – ballistic missiles, the actions it takes in its neighborhood.
The good news is because we’ve made a clear commitment that we’re prepared to re-engage in diplomacy, the very allies and partners we needed who were alienated from us because we got out of the diplomacy business are now back with us. And that means they’re also prepared to join us in taking strong action as necessary against some of the other things Iran does that we don’t like. So we’ll see. We’re a long way from getting back to where we were. We don’t know what Iran will do or won’t do. But I think that it offers at least the possibility of dealing with the nuclear problem and then hopefully dealing with some of the other problems.
SECRETARY CLINTON: When I look around the world and I think about everything on your plate and all that you are going to be addressing as Secretary of State, it’s these transnational global problems that you cannot imagine dealing with unless you have the kind of attitude you’ve just expressed, Mr. Secretary.
I worry a lot about the flow of migration, which we know is going to be exacerbated by climate change. And we need to bring the world together to do something we used to do decades ago: kind of look ahead somewhat, convene some international efforts on several fronts.
One, obviously, what do we do about refugee flow? How do we try to deal with the problems in the host country? In our hemisphere, it’s primarily now Central America, even more than Mexico, that is unfortunately seeing people flee for a better life moving north toward our border. In Europe, it’s Syria, it’s North Africa, it’s Afghanistan. Can you think about some of the big areas that, maybe on a longer timeframe, you as Secretary, working with your counterparts around the world, could begin a process of trying to figure out? What do we do about refugees? What do we do about rebuilding the WHO, getting better prepared for the next pandemic? What do we do to defend democracy? Those are three big kind of cross-cutting issues.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah, absolutely. And it really does go back to what we started talking about, which was both having a sense of humility and confidence at the same time. I think they’re flip sides of the same coin. Humility because we certainly don’t get everything right ourselves. And a lot of these problems are also not in the first instance necessarily about us, even as they affect us, and we can’t just flip the switch and expect to solve them. But confidence, because I still believe profoundly, as I know you did, that when the United States is acting at its best, we still have a greater ability than any country on Earth to mobilize others in collective action, to bring other countries together to try to solve problems.
And the big ones you just outlined are actually having a real effect on the lives of our fellow citizens, so we have an interest in doing something about them.
The refugee situation. We have more people on the move around the planet than at any time since World War II, about 70 million who have been – felt compelled to leave their homes in one place or another. That’s the magnitude of the problem. And by definition, no one country can tackle it alone.
To your point, I think there’s a lot that we can do collectively. For example, first of all, we want to try to do what we can with other countries to prevent, and if necessary, end conflicts that are, in many places, forcing people to flee.
Second, these countries that take them in – remarkable generosity. You mentioned Syrian refugees. As you know, if you go to Turkey, to Lebanon, to Jordan, you see populations that are – in some cases a quarter of the population is a Syrian refugee. That puts huge strain on local economies, on local resources. So I think collectively, we have an interest in helping these countries of first refuge be able to care for the refugees that they have, because on average, once someone’s a refugee, they tend to stay that way for well over a decade.
So we have to help these countries and then we have to put in place the support, the financing, and the United States has to do its part as well. We have long been a beacon for refugees around the world. That’s something that I know the President is committed to restoring, but we also have to be very mindful of our own borders, our own security, and we’re very focused on that. The Northern Triangle countries – Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras – as you said, are increasingly the source of forced migration here. And what’s the answer there? The main answer is really trying to deal with some of the so-called root causes.
It’s always amazed me – some people seem to think in Washington, for example, that someone gets up in the morning and says gee, wouldn’t this be a great day to leave everything I know behind, to leave my language, my culture, my friends, my family, my city – put myself in the hands of traffickers, take this incredibly hazardous journey, and then maybe go someplace where I don’t know anyone and maybe I’m not so wanted. It takes something extraordinary to compel people to feel that that’s the only choice they have. So if you can help the countries in question deal with some of those drivers, deal with the corruption, deal with the crime and insecurity, deal with the lack of opportunity, and give people a reason to stay home and help build the future of their own country, that ultimately is how you get to the bottom of this. But it takes time, it takes sustained effort, and that’s something I know President Biden’s committed to doing.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I know you’re going to have to get on to the important businesses of State. Something that people don’t know about you, although it’s recently broken in the press, is that you have your own Spotify channel where you post music you’ve recorded. So I have to ask: Are you going to be able to keep this going as Secretary of State and maybe jam with other foreign ministers around the world, and even have a public performance on the eighth floor of the State Department where we do all of the entertaining?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: It is hard to think of anything that would do more damage to our foreign policy and diplomacy than me doing that. (Laughter.) So I wouldn’t inflict that on my colleagues here or anyone abroad. It’s been a lifelong passion, something I’ve taken immense enjoyment out of. If I’d had a chance to actually do that as a career, I would have done it, and it turned out there was only one missing ingredient, which was talent – (laughter) –– it turns out also that the only people who seem to like or tolerate my music are extremely young children who haven’t yet developed critical faculty. So that’s my – that’s the sweet spot. That’s my demographic. So I’ll play for my kids, but maybe not for anyone else.
SECRETARY CLINTON: (Laughter.) Keep playing for your kids. I used to sing to my daughter when she was a baby until she learned to talk, and it was a memorable, tragic evening when I’m singing away to her, rocking her before I put her to bed, and she reaches up and puts her little finger on my mouth and says, “No sing, Mommy, no sing.”
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: So keep singing until you’re told otherwise. And finally, what’s the best advice you’ve gotten since you’ve started this amazing, important job?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: It’s funny. I was thinking back, and actually, it’s really advice that I got when I first started working for President Clinton and first set foot actually in the White House way back in 1993. And that’s advice that’s stayed with me and it still animates what I think about this job, which is: Make sure you have reverence and appreciation for the institution that you’re working in and helping to lead, and that extraordinary responsibility and opportunity of doing a job with the American flag behind you every day. But also never lose your sense of humor and never lose your sense of where you actually fit into that larger scheme and larger sweep of history. And as long as you keep your eyes focused on both, you’ll do okay.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, that really resonates with me because the late, great George Shultz, who served in the position that you hold and that I was honored to hold, came to see me one day in the ceremonial office on the seventh floor.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yes.
SECRETARY CLINTON: And he brought with him a teddy bear and he said, “You’re going to face a lot of serious issues, you’re going to have a lot of problems, it’s not always going to go our way in the United States. So just do the best you can. But then remember,” and he punched the little paw of the teddy bear, and the teddy bear started to sing, “Don’t worry, be happy.” (Laughter.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That is wonderful. I can’t —
SECRETARY CLINTON: If I could find another one, Tony, I’ll send it to you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I need one. Please.
SECRETARY CLINTON: I will look for – I’m looking for it right now. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Please do. And I can’t resist because you mentioned George Shultz, who I revered also, and the other wonderful story about Secretary Shultz was – before one of our new ambassadors was sent off to post to represent the United States, he as secretary would call them into that office – and you may remember he had a very large globe.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Right.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: And he would ask them to point to their country on the globe, and so our new ambassador would try to find South Africa or Poland and he would gently correct them and put their finger on the United States.
And maybe that’s the other most important piece of advice that I’ve gotten, and it’s from the President of the United States Joe Biden, which is: Ultimately, our job is to be here on behalf of the American people and to make sure that everything we’re doing has them in mind. Anything we’re doing around the world, is it going in some way – maybe even some small way – going to make their life a little bit better, a little bit safer, a little bit more prosperous, a little bit more hopeful? And if we keep that in mind, we’ll have a good North Star and be pretty grounded in what we do.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Wow, that’s a great way to end our conversation. I am so delighted to have this chance to talk with you, but I’m even more thrilled that you are serving in this capacity, Secretary Blinken, and I join every well-meaning American in wishing you the very best as you tackle these problems on our behalf. Thank you so much.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you, Madam Secretary. Wonderful to be with you.