Interview: Secretary Antony J. Blinken with Justin Webb of BBC Radio 4

May 5, 2021
Lancaster House
London, England

QUESTION:  Secretary of State, let me start by asking this:  You were enormously positive about the relationship between the United States and Britain when you spoke at your press conference with the foreign secretary.  What impact does that positivity have on the possibility of a trade deal being signed between the two countries relatively soon?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, first, you’re right, I am, I was, I will be very positive.  Because there is no closer relationship.  And as we’re grappling with problems, challenges, opportunities around the world, I found from my many conversations, many engagements with my counterpart, Dominic Raab, also getting a chance to spend some time with the prime minister yesterday, that our two countries are profoundly in sync.  And that makes a big difference, because tackling the challenges that we face requires cooperation, collaboration, especially from the United States and United Kingdom.

As to a trade agreement, what we’re doing now is our trade negotiator just got on the job.  So she’s taking the time to go back and review everything that was discussed.  And that’s taking some time.  And we want to make sure that whether it’s with the United Kingdom or with anyone else, any agreements we reach are consistent with the principles that President Biden’s established to focus on making sure that these agreements really advance the well-being of our workers and their families.  That’s our focus.  So we’re taking a look at everything that’s been discussed to date, and we’ll take it forward from there.

QUESTION:  But I suppose the question, then, is whether the closeness that you have, that you feel towards this country, behind the scenes, nevermind the detail, is something that could lead – at least the possibility is there, could lead to a trade deal in the Biden first term.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, I’m going to defer to my colleague as the trade representative and defer to the President, but certainly we’re looking very carefully at what’s already been discussed, what’s already been done in these conversations, and we’ll carry it forward from there.

QUESTION:  Hmm.  How important, if a deal is to be done, will be peace in Ireland?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  This is something that we’re very focused on.  We want to make sure that whether it’s with the United Kingdom and the European Union, whether it’s anything that we’re doing, that we make sure to the best of our ability that the tremendous gains from the Good Friday Agreement are sustained, and that the economic as well as political well-being of Northern Ireland is taken fully into account.

QUESTION:  Is keeping the Northern Ireland Protocol in place part of what is necessary in order —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I don’t want to get into what would be necessary or what wouldn’t.  I can just say that for President Biden, making sure that whatever is done, whatever we do, the gains of Good Friday are sustained, and we have the political and economic well-being of Northern Ireland in mind.

QUESTION:  When are we going to know, that final thought on the trade deal?  When are we going to know?  When are we going to get a sense of what is possible?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, my colleague the trade negotiator has a lot of reading to do, so let me – let me not put any face on that.

QUESTION:  (Laughter.)  Right, okay.  Wider issues.  It is said of the Biden foreign policy, of your foreign policy, that it is essentially the Trump foreign policy, only politer.  Is that at all true?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, we’re very much looking forward, not looking backward.  I can tell you what the basic principles are, the basic approach.  And I alluded to one piece of this that’s so important to the President already.  When we’re looking at the problems that are actually having an impact on the lives of the American people, on the lives of people here as well, whether it’s climate, whether it’s this pandemic of course, whether it’s the disruptive impact of emerging technologies, and so on down the list, not a single one can be solved by any one country acting alone, even the United States, or even the United Kingdom. 

There’s a greater premium than at any time since I’ve been involved in these issues on cooperation, on collaboration, on working together.  That’s a driving part of the President’s foreign policy, which is why we’ve – we’ve re-engaged immediately with our allies and partners.  We’ve been working to reinvigorate those (inaudible) and as well in the multilateral system – the United Nations, all these different organizations.

That’s what’s driving us.  Because we’re trying – when we’re thinking about our foreign policy, first and foremost we’re thinking about our citizens and making sure we’re having a direct impact on improving their lives.  And that requires collaboration and cooperation.

QUESTION:  But there is a limit to that cooperation, isn’t there?  For instance, with Afghanistan, if Britain had said to you, “No, this is not a time to pull out,” you still would have done it, presumably.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We spent a lot of time before the President made his decision consulting with, listening to our allies and partners.  I went to NATO and I was in listening mode.  I reported back to President Biden everything I’d heard.  And we had a principle when it comes to Afghanistan: in together, adapt together, out together.  And that’s exactly what we’re doing.  There was —

QUESTION:  With you leading.  That’s the point.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:   Well, there was a unanimous NATO statement in support of the President’s decision and moving forward with NATO’s withdrawal as well.  But one thing that’s really important here as well, even if we’re pulling our forces out of Afghanistan, we are not withdrawing from Afghanistan.  We are not leaving.  We’re remaining deeply engaged when it comes to supporting Afghanistan – economically, development assistance, humanitarian, supporting its security forces.  We’re staying in the game.

QUESTION:  Does not having to rely on Pakistan for a supply chain essentially, both physical and kind of political as well, does that change the dynamics, change what’s possible for you when it comes to influence in Afghanistan?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:   One of the things I think that’s happened is the decision has concentrated the minds of pretty much everyone inside Afghanistan and outside of Afghanistan and the region as well.  For the last 20 years, they’ve been able, in effect, to be to some extent free riders on us, on NATO, on our partners.  They now have to decide, including Pakistan, what are – where their interests lie, and, if they have influence, how to use it.  I don’t think a single neighbor of Afghanistan’s, starting with Pakistan, has an interest in the country, for example, winding up in a civil war, because that would produce a massive refugee flow, other countries would be concerned about the export of extremism, of drugs, et cetera.

So one aspect of this is that countries may now have to really step up and use the influence that they have to advance their interests, and that influence, I think, would be in the direction of trying to keep Afghanistan on a positive path.

QUESTION:  Turning to Iran.  The British Government acknowledges that it owes the Iranian Government money.  If it found a way of handing that money over, would America want to stand in the way?  Would America support it being done?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:   Look, I’m not going to get into the details of any negotiations.  Here’s what I can tell you.  We’ve been engaged now in Vienna for some weeks with our European partners, with Russia, China, and indirectly as you know with Iran.  I think we’ve demonstrated our very seriousness of purpose in terms of wanting to get back into the so-called JCPOA.  Compliance for compliance.  And what we don’t yet know is whether Iran is prepared to make the same decision and to move forward.  Our teams are coming back together in the coming days, and we’ll see.

QUESTION:  I understand that you don’t want to get involved in negotiations and matters that aren’t your country’s direct responsibility.  But could I ask you at least to say from your perspective if Britain wants to hand money to Iran, which is after all something the United States did back in the Obama administration, America would not stand in the way?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:   It’s a sovereign decision for the United Kingdom.

QUESTION:  Right.  Okay.  And in the longer term, the relationship with Iran that you are trying to get to is what?  Because you’re accused, aren’t you, by your opponents at home, possibly by others, and perhaps by the Israelis in particular for certain naivete that actually the people you want to deal with in Iran are not the people in charge.  What’s your response to that?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:   Look, it’s pretty straightforward because this is focused on the nuclear challenge posed by Iran.  And before the agreement was reached some years ago, Iran was on the path where in a matter of weeks it could produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon and leave us no time to do anything about it.  And we looked at every possible way of putting constraints on their program, cutting off their pathways to producing fissile material for a nuclear weapon, and that’s exactly what the agreement did.  It pushed that so-called breakout time to past a year.  And it was working.  Our own people said Iran was complying.  So did the international inspectors.  It had the most intrusive inspections regime.

So right now, unfortunately, Iran has itself lifted many of the constraints imposed on it by the agreement because we pulled out.  And it is now getting closer and closer again to that point where its breakout time is going to be down to a few months and eventually even less.

So there’s nothing naive about this.  On the contrary, it’s a very clear-eyed way of dealing with a problem that was dealt with effectively by the JCPOA.  And we’ll have to see if we can do the same thing again.

QUESTION:  Vladimir Putin.  There’s going to be a meeting between Biden and Putin at some stage in the – do – how do you as an administration regard his strength?  So it is said of him, isn’t it, that he is an enormously strong leader?  It is also said of him that, actually, there’s a certain brittleness there, and you can see with Navalny, et cetera that there may be.  What’s your assessment of his internal strength, his ability to do what he wants to do?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I have to tell you, we’re less focused on President Putin or any one individual and more focused on Russia’s actions.  And what President Biden has said very clearly and repeatedly is if Russia acts recklessly or aggressively, as it did with the SolarWinds cyber intrusion, as it did with interference in our elections, as it did with what it’s done to Mr. Navalny, then we will respond.  But at the same time, we would prefer a more stable and predictable relationship, and if Russia chooses that path, there are areas where we can cooperate in our mutual interest.  But it is really focused on Russia’s actions. 

QUESTION:  Does that mean as well, though, that when it comes to things like the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that is pretty much done, isn’t it – it’s not working yet, but it’s pretty much done – between Germany and Russia, and President Trump objected to it and tried to stop it in its tracks, are you going to change course on that?  Do you still object or do you also object?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  There too I think the President’s been clear for a long time, and including before he was President:  We think the pipeline is a bad idea.  It advances Russia’s interests and undermines Europe’s interests and our own.  It actually goes against the very principles that the EU has set out in terms of energy security and not being too dependent on any one country, notably, in this case, Russia.  And, of course, it’s detrimental to Ukraine, to Poland, and other key European countries.  So he’s been clear about that, we’ve been clear about that, and that hasn’t changed.

QUESTION:  Can I ask you a broad question about China?  We are very much in this country considering now what our relationship should be with China.  You are plainly as well.  Have we reached a point where we need to pull back?  We’ve been talking a lot about investments at the moment, Chinese investments in the United Kingdom, nuclear power, et cetera, core investments.  Are we at a stage where we need to be pulling back from them or not?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Here’s how we see it and how we’re thinking about it, because there are a few things that are very important, and some of that involves what we’re not trying to do. We’re not trying to contain China; we’re not trying to hold it back.  We recognize that countries have relationships with China, interests with China.  We’re not trying to say you have to choose between China and the United States. 

But here’s what we are saying:  We’re in favor of upholding certain basic ideas, and in particular, this so-called rules-based international system that we and the United Kingdom, among others, have heavily invested in for generations.  And it’s been a benefit to us, been a benefit to countries around the world.  Whenever anyone tries to undermine that system by not playing by the rules, by not making good on commitments it’s made, then we will stand up and say no, we don’t accept that.  So this is not directed at China per se.  It is directed at upholding this rules-based order, because that has been the best guarantor of peace, progress, stability the world has seen over the last 75 years.

QUESTION:  But can we – can we do that upholding and also have a huge amount of Chinese investment in our economies?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I think we have to be very careful about exactly what the nature is of that investment.  And if it’s investing in strategic industry, strategic assets, that’s something that countries need to look at very carefully.  But that’s one thing, and it’s very important.  Another thing is to say we’re not doing any visits.  That’s not what we’re saying.

QUESTION:  Final thought:  Does the Biden administration believe in American exceptionalism?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I would say yes, but a lot depends on what you mean by American exceptionalism.  Here’s what I think I mean by it, and I believe what the President means by it:  In our very founding documents, we said that our objective is to form a more perfect union, and by definition that acknowledges our imperfection.  It acknowledges that we’re constantly trying to make progress to renew, to deal with our challenges.  We’ve had a few challenges of late.  But I think what, to me at least, sets us apart from a number of countries is we deal with those challenges openly, transparently.  We don’t try to hide them; we don’t try to push them under the rug.  And sometimes it’s painful, sometimes it’s ugly, but in confronting our problems and our challenges, that’s actually how we make progress.  That’s what I think our country is all about. 

QUESTION:  Do you feel Donald Trump over your shoulder?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We’re looking ahead.  We’re looking forward, not backward. 

QUESTION:  But when you mention the difficulties at home and you think of the difficulty you have in projecting American power around the world, is there kind of this sense that actually until you’ve sorted out your own country and have a – large numbers of people, for instance, who don’t accept the result of the election, et cetera – until those things are done, your ability as Secretary of State is curtailed.  Is that fair?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well – but that’s always the case, the – that there’s a profound connection between our strength and success at home and our ability to engage and lead effectively around the world. 

QUESTION:  So it might not be there at the moment?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So when we get that – when we get that right, then I think it benefits our foreign policy.  And the President’s been, I think, very, very focused on this.  And we have as well the ability to lead not just by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.  We do have to set an example and that starts at home. 

QUESTION:  Antony Blinken, thank you so much for talking to us. 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Good to be with you.  Thank you. 

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