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Transcript: NPR's Full Interview With Secretary of State Tony Blinken

Secretary of State Antony Blinken introduces President Joe Biden for remarks to State Department staff on Feb. 4, 2021 in Washington.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken introduces President Joe Biden for remarks to State Department staff on Feb. 4, 2021 in Washington.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks with Secretary of State Tony Blinken about foreign policy goals under the Biden administration and how he plans to shape America's standing on the global stage.

Mary Louise Kelly: Secretary Blinken, welcome.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken: Thanks. It's so good to be with you, Mary Louise.

It is good to have you with us. Let's start here: If I asked you for one sentence, what is the goal of U.S. foreign policy under this administration, the mission statement. What would that sentence be?

On one level, the mission statement is simple, and we sometimes lose sight of it. The mission statement is to advance the security, prosperity and values that the American people share. We sometimes lose sight of those north stars. But our hope is that every single day the work we're doing is helping to make the American people just a little bit safer, a little bit more prosperous, a little bit healthier. And if we're doing that and we accumulate enough steps, we'll be in a better place in a few years.

You just mentioned values, advancing American values around the world. Is that more difficult when they are under siege here at home?

It cuts both ways. There is no doubt that our ability to wave the banner of democracy and human rights to some extent has been tarnished by recent events, especially the egregious attack on the Capitol on January 6. On the other hand, what's so powerful about it is that our democracy is resilient. Members of Congress came back to the buildings that had been under siege. They stood up for the Constitution. They stood up for the institution. And even as we're grappling with this ongoing problem, we're doing it in a way that is transparent, that is out there for the entire world to see. And unlike in some other places, we're not trying to sweep it under the rug. We're not trying to ignore it. We're not trying to deny it. We're confronting it. And sometimes it's ugly, sometimes it's painful, but it's also incredibly powerful. And so what I tell colleagues around the world and people that we're already engaged with — albeit too often by telephone, instead of being able to do it in person, because of COVID — is that our democracy is strong, it's resilient. And the very fact that we're constantly trying to build that more perfect union is an acknowledgement of our imperfection. But also it's in the striving that you really make progress. And I think there's a model there for others.

When you said it has made it more difficult, though, to wave the banner of American values, can you be specific? Have you been on a call with a counterpart overseas and they've said, hey, hang on, who are you to lecture us about the state of democracy and how to run our country?

Yes. People have been pretty gentle about it. But certainly there's the occasional dig from someone on the other end of the line whom we are raising concerns with about something going on in their country. But again, I don't feel any hesitation about advancing our views on democracy and our views on human rights, because, again, I find that there's actually strength in the fact that we're confronting these things openly, that we're confronting our own deficits, our own challenges for the entire world to see. And that's very unlike, still, most other countries in the world.

You know, when I speak to diplomats in Europe and beyond, some of them, many of them, have argued that there has been damage to U.S. standing in the world and that much of that damage cannot be repaired. They would also argue that some of it predates the Trump administration. Do you hear similar when you have candid conversations with counterparts abroad?

Oh, people raise these questions. And, of course, they even raise the questions of the durability of some of the actions we're taking. Look, it's been pretty remarkable. In the space of just a few weeks, we reengaged with allies and partners around the world. I think I've made myself maybe 50 calls already. It's a good thing we're on the family plan here at the State Department, otherwise we'd be broke. But beyond that, we rejoined the Paris climate accord. We re-engaged with the World Health Organization. We ended the so-called Muslim and Africa travel bans. We restored our refugee program. We joined the Human Rights Council as an observer. We've reprioritized sexual and reproductive health, including funding for the U.N. Population Fund. We have a presidential memorandum to protect and promote LGBTQI rights around the world. We've led in condemning the coup in Burma and trying to galvanize collective action. And of course, we are now doubling down on diplomacy to try to end the horrific war in Yemen that's helped produce what is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. And I could go on. The point is, I think people are seeing by our actions — not just what we're saying, by what we're doing — that, as the president likes to say, America's back, America's engaged, America's leading. And I've found an incredibly receptive audience for that.

Let's apply this to Iran. Is U.S. policy still that Iran must not be allowed to get a nuclear weapon?

It is.

In which case, I'll put you the same question I put to Mike Pompeo a year ago. How do you stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon?

Well, we did in the past. The Iran nuclear deal, the so-called JCPOA, was very effective in cutting off all of the pathways that Iran then had to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon. And we know that that agreement was working. Our own intelligence experts as well as the international community told us it was working on its own terms to deny Iran's pathways to fissile material for a bomb. And it's very unfortunate that we pulled out of it.

And I know you've said you'd like Iran to reenter the nuclear deal, but why should they trust America's word and sign another deal with us when there's no guarantee that four years from now a new U.S. president won't rip it up again?

Look, every country has to make these calculations and decide on balance what's going to be in their interests. I think we know this: Having pulled out of the deal, Iran then began to lift the very restraints the deal had imposed on it. And the result is that, today, Iran is far closer to having the ability to produce fissile material for a weapon on short order than it was when the deal was in force. At that point, the so-called breakout time — the amount of time it would take Iran to produce fissile material if it chose to at weapons grade — the deal had pushed that to past a year. Now, according to published reports, we're down to three or four months and heading in the wrong direction. And so I think we have an incentive to try to put Iran back in the nuclear box. Presumably, Iran still has incentives to get what it bargained for in the deal, which was some sanctions relief given the state of its economy. So I think there's still interest on both sides — including among our negotiating partners in Europe, also Russia and China — to do this. But it would be a necessary first step, but also an insufficient one. Time has passed. And so if we're to get back into the deal, if Iran returns to compliance and we do the same, we need to work on an agreement that's longer and stronger than the original one. And we also need to engage other issues that were not part of the original negotiation that are deeply problematic for us and for other countries around the world: Iran's ballistic missile program, its destabilizing actions in country after country. All of that needs to be engaged. But the first step would be Iran returning to compliance. And President Biden has been clear that if they do, we would do the same. The path to diplomacy is open right now. Iran is still a ways away from being in compliance. So we'll have to see what it does.

You just said the path to diplomacy is open. Is there any move underway to reopen direct diplomacy with Iran? Have you reached out? Will you reach out?

At present, the president's been very clear publicly, repeatedly, about where we stand. And we'll see what, if any, reaction Iran has to that.

All right, that's not a yes or no, but you're not ruling out that direct diplomacy might be somewhere in the future here?

Well, at some point, presumably, if there's going to be any engagement on this, that would have to require diplomacy. That's what we're in the business of.

The rocket attack yesterday across the border in Erbil. In the past, the U.S. has blamed similar attacks on Iran-backed forces. Do you see this as Iran testing a new U.S. administration?

Look, it's too soon to say. The attack itself was outrageous. As you said, Mary Louise, in Erbil it harmed civilians. It harmed coalition forces, including an American service member. I spoke with the Kurdish region's prime minister, Masrour Barzani. I spoke with Iraq's prime minister today. We're focused on ensuring the safety of our folks, of government personnel, of U.S. citizens, the security of our facilities. That's the high priority. And, of course, the Iraqi people have suffered for far too long from this kind of violence and a violation of their sovereignty. What we're doing, what the Iraqis are doing, the Kurdish region, the central government in Baghdad have stood up a committee to try to get to the bottom of what happened. Obviously, we'll participate in that and try to help. So we need to find out who's responsible. We don't at this point know. Certainly, we've seen these attacks in the past. We've seen Iraqi militia, Iranian-backed militia in many cases be responsible. But to date, it's too early to know who's responsible for this one.

A question or two on China: The Trump administration took a hard line against China. And you've said credit where credit's due, Trump was right to get tougher on China. My question to you, Secretary Blinken, is what is the evidence that it's worked, that China has changed its behavior in any way?

Well, there's a difference, Mary Louise, between getting tough on China and doing it effectively and getting results. And so, yes, I think that the President Trump was right to take a tougher line on some of the egregious things that China has done and is doing that are counter to our interests and counter to our values. But I think the way that we went about doing it did not produce results. And I think if you're looking for how to do it and I think how to do it more effectively, is — whether we're looking at the relationship with China and looking at its adversarial aspects, if we're looking at its competitive aspects or we're looking even at its cooperative ones — the common denominator has to be approaching China from a position of strength, not weakness. And that strength comes from a few things.

It comes first and foremost from working in close coordination with allies and partners who may be similarly aggrieved by some of China's practices. When we're in the business of picking fights with our allies instead of working with them, that takes away from our strength in dealing with China. Similarly, being engaged, leaning in, showing up around the world is a source of strength. When we pull back from that, when we abdicate our responsibility, when we're not engaged in helping to write the rules and shape the norms that govern relations among nations, then guess what happens? China fills in and takes our place. That puts us in a position of weakness, not strength.

We're in a position of strength when we actually stand up for our values, when we don't say it's OK for China to create concentration camps for Uighurs in Xinjiang or to trample on democracy in Hong Kong. And of course, we're acting from a position of strength when we're actually investing in our own people and in our own technology so that we can be as competitive as possible.

The good news about all of those things is that they're actually within our control. These are things we can do. These are decisions we can make. And if we do them, that sets the foundation for engaging China, whether it's in an adversarial aspect, a competitive one or a cooperative one — from a position of strength, not weakness.

To follow, you just mentioned the Uighurs in Xinjiang. You have called the treatment of Uighurs in China "genocide." You've also talked about human rights being at the very center of this administration's foreign policy. And I'm trying to reconcile those two things. How does the U.S. do business with a government engaging in genocide?

This has been a challenge for American administrations going back decades and decades. We have to be able to find ways to do both. We have been leading the effort now in bringing human rights and democracy back to the heart of our foreign policy. We've been leading the effort in terms of, for example, condemning and galvanizing others into collective action with regard to the coup in Burma. Similarly, when it comes to China and what it's done in Xinjiang against the Uighurs or what it's been doing to democracy in Hong Kong, we're standing up, speaking out and working with others to do the same. But we have —

And just to sharpen the question, though, on Xinjiang, you'll know that human rights groups are pushing for a boycott, for example, of the 2022 Winter Olympics. I know that's not your call, but should the U.S. participate in an Olympic Games being hosted by a government if you believe they're engaging in genocide?

First and foremost, I think the things that we can and should be doing. For example, to make sure that any products or technologies that we make are not being used to repress people, including in Xinjiang. Similarly, we ought to be able to make sure that we're not importing things that are made with forced labor, including in Xinjiang. Those are all things that we can take action on. And we'll look at any of these other issues as they as they come up. But we have to be able to do multiple things at the same time.

Let me give you another example: Russia. It's very, I think, clear to the world where the concerns that we have with Russia's behavior and Russia's actions. And indeed we've ordered reviews and investigations on a number of fronts where Russia has taken egregious actions that undermine our interests and values. The poisoning using a chemical weapon of Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader. The interference in our elections. The cyberattack, the infamous so-called Solar Winds attack. All of these things and others are under review. But at the same time, we were able very quickly, because it's in our interest, to extend the new START agreement by five years, the arms control reduction agreement. And we'll look at other ways to advance strategic stability with Russia, even as we're very clear about the actions that they're taking — also in Ukraine, the aggression that continues there — that are a challenge to our interests and values. But we have to be able to work on both fronts.

I know you've gotta run. Have you figured out your first foreign trip yet?

It's a big frustration not to be able to travel and to actually see not just my counterparts face-to-face, but people from all walks of life, which is one of the great benefits of these trips. And not to mention the extraordinary men and women of the State Department who are serving around the world. I wish I could do that tomorrow. We have to get beyond COVID-19, or at least get to the point where it's safe to travel. And we're not quite there yet.

No. Secretary of State Tony Blinken speaking with us today from the State Department. And you can hear more of my conversation with him tomorrow on Morning Edition. Secretary Blinken, thank you.

Great to be with you. Thank you.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.