Fri. Jul 12th, 2024
Secretary Antony J. Blinken at a Conversation with World Economic Forum President Borge Brende

MR BRENDE:  Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, a warm welcome to Secretary Blinken —


MR BRENDE:  — coming to this special meeting.  We know that you’ve been traveling the world – also the last week you’ve been in China; I at least read in the media that you’re heading to Israel tomorrow.  And what a complicated world.  We have had this summit now for two days, and I think the conclusion has been that the global economy is doing a lot better than expected, especially the U.S. economy, but geopolitically we are in a kind of a recession.  And your – also a big task in maneuvering this, and we know that the decisions we are making now will also have consequences for many years to come. 

We are kind of between world orders.  We had one world order, and we don’t know really what the next one is.  And I think everyone – before we go into the more original situations – would like to hear your aspirations for the world.  What kind of world order does the Biden administration and you personally aspire for, Secretary? 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Borge, thanks very much.  It’s great to be with you, great to be with so many colleagues here.  Wonderful as well to have the full World Economic Forum experience, having been in Davos and now having been here, so couldn’t be better. 

And you’re right that this is a moment of particular challenge.  It’s a moment of challenge because in many ways, as President Biden likes to say, we’re at an inflection point.  There are fundamental changes taking place in terms of geopolitical competition but also global challenges that no country can effectively address alone, where the decisions that we make in these moments are likely to have repercussions not just for the next years but for decades to come.  That’s what he means; that’s what we mean by an inflection point. 

So for us the starting point in dealing with this effectively is to make sure that we’re well organized.  And what do we mean by that?  For President Biden, for the United States in this moment and over the last three years, we started with a proposition that, again, we can’t effectively do and meet these challenges alone as large and as powerful as the United States is.  And so he’s put a premium on revitalizing, reimagining, reinvigorating alliances, partnerships around the world in every corner and making sure that we were working together with different groupings of countries that were fit for particular purposes.  And so you see it in everything we’ve done to strengthen existing alliances and partnerships. 

You’ve seen it everything we’ve done also to reimagine some new ones, to bring countries together in common purpose.  We have the global coalition now to deal with synthetic opioids that are afflicting so many countries, coalitions of countries to work on infrastructure investment, on global health, as well as on these big geopolitical challenges.  And I think that organization, that foundation has actually helped us do well and do effectively in meeting some of these big problems, big challenges. 

Two quick examples.  On Ukraine, we were able to bring so many countries together, not just in Europe but beyond, because countries recognize that there was an aggression not only against Ukraine but against some of the foundational principles of the international system.  And if we let that challenge go with impunity, then it was likely that would-be aggressors everywhere would take note and we would have a world of more conflict, not less conflict.  And having brought many countries together effectively, we helped the incredibly courageous Ukrainians repel the aggression.  Now, it’s an ongoing effort, an ongoing struggle, but the designs that Vladimir Putin had on Ukraine to begin with, to erase it from the map, to subsume it into Russia so that it no longer existed – that’s failed.  And we also have an alliance in Europe that’s stronger, that’s also larger than it was, and I think a plan to enable Ukraine to be a success over time – a strong country militarily, economically, democratically. 

In Asia, we have the most consequential and in many ways complicated relationship with China.  It can’t be defined on a bumper sticker, but we’ve approached it from a position of strength – the aspects where we’re competitive, the aspects where we’re cooperative, the aspects where we’re contesting.  And that strength has to do with the fact that there’s now greater convergence than at any time I can remember between us, key partners in Europe, key partners in Asia, and in other places on approaching some of the challenges posed by China.  I just came back, as you noted, from there, and I think that’s very much something that they see and understand. 

And of course, in this moment, we have arguably the worst crisis in the Middle East since 1948.  And we’re addressing it, working on it together with partners throughout the region trying to bring the conflict in Gaza to an end, trying to ensure that it doesn’t spread.  And all of that is a collective effort. 

So I guess I’d sum it up by saying that on the one hand, it’s really two sides of the same coin, Borge.  One is that we’re determined – and I keep hearing this everywhere I go – that countries continue to look to the United States to be engaged and to lead.  And I think there’s a recognition that in the absence of that engagement, in the absence of that leadership, then one or two things happens.  Either someone else is doing it, maybe not in the most positive ways; or maybe worse, no one is doing it, and then you have a vacuum that’s filled by bad things before it’s filled with good things. 

But the other side of the coin is that, as I said, more than at any time since I’ve been involved in these issues, which goes back 30 years now – more than 30 years – we have to find cooperative, collaborative responses, because none of us have the ability to effectively deal with these challenges alone.  So we put a premium on that more than anything else.  And again, I think you can see the results in the areas that I just mentioned. 

MR BRENDE:  Thank you, Secretary.  Let’s start with the latter – the region – and ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.  During the two last days, it’s been said from the newspapers that there will never be a two-state solution without U.S. taking leadership.  But we also know that Egypt now presented a ceasefire and release of hostages deal to Israel, we learned that it’s no with Hamas, and they will have to decide maybe – what you think are the prospects?  I guess if Hamas then doesn’t accept this, I think Netanyahu has said that then he will go full-fledged into Rafah.  So your visit, I guess, to Israel tomorrow will be very important because I think there is a big fear in the region that – for further escalation.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I think there’s a lot to be said about this, of course.  But to try to put it in a nutshell, a few things are important:  One, we strongly support Israel in its effort to ensure that what happened on October 7th never happens again.  But at the same time, we are determined to do everything we can to bring an end to the terrible human suffering that we’re seeing every single day in Gaza among children, women, men, who have been caught in a terrible crossfire of Hamas’s making.  And so maximizing protection of civilians, maximizing the support that gets to them – this is very much our focus.

Now, the quickest way to bring this to an end is to get to a ceasefire and the release of hostages.  And as you said, there’s been a extraordinary effort that’s been made – and I really want to thank, profoundly, our friends from Qatar and Egypt who have been playing an instrumental role in trying to get this ceasefire and release of hostages – a major effort that’s been made over the last couple of months to get to that ceasefire, to get the hostages out.  And right now, as you said, Hamas has before it a proposal that is extraordinarily – extraordinarily – generous on the part of Israel.  And in this moment, the only thing standing between the people of Gaza and a ceasefire is Hamas.  They have to decide, and they have to decide quickly.

So we’re looking to that, and I’m hopeful that they will make the right decision and we can have a fundamental change in the dynamic.

MR BRENDE:  But let’s say that Hamas turns it down.  You will still recommend Prime Minister Netanyahu tomorrow not to go ahead with that attack on Rafah?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We’ve said clearly and for some time now on Rafah that in the absence of a plan to ensure that civilians will not be – will not be harmed, we can’t support a major military operation in Rafah.  And we have not yet seen a plan that gives us confidence that civilians can be effectively protected.

MR BRENDE:  But if there is an agreement – ceasefire, release of some hostages, there will then need to be a plan for the way forward.


MR BRENDE:  And destructions in Gaza is like a warzone now.  But will there be any appetite from any donor to support a rebuilding without a political plan?  Because it was rebuilt ten years ago after the last war, and invested billions.  I guess there is also no donors today that want to do this again without a political path.  And do you think there can be a political path?  With Hamas still there, it’s going to be complicated because I guess Gaza has to be run then by others than Hamas.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, one of the benefits of being here is to be able to see all of my colleagues.  We have been meeting and talking on a continuous basis since October 7th, but particularly since the beginning of the year, looking really at two things: the need to be ready for a day-after plan for Gaza, to include what is to be done about security, what is to be done about governance and administration, what is to be done about the humanitarian and reconstruction needs.  And a lot of work has been done on that; more work that needs to be done so that we can be ready.

At the same time, I think it’s clear that in the absence of a real political horizon for the Palestinians, it’s going to be much harder, if not impossible, to really have a coherent plan for Gaza itself.  So we’re working on that as well.  And all I can tell you in this moment is a lot’s gone into this.  I think many of these things are achievable, but we still have a lot of work to do.  That’s what we’re here to do, and that’s what I’m here to do in part on this trip. 

But let me say something else.  I think we really can see two paths forward for the region as a whole as well as for Israelis and Palestinians in particular.  There’s a path forward where the region is genuinely integrated, where Israel has normal relations with its neighbors – something that it’s sought since its creation – where Palestinians have their legitimate aspirations met for a state of their own, and where we end once and for all the cycle of violence, the cycle of destruction, a cycle of profound insecurity, and where the pre-eminent challenge, pre-eminent threat to virtually every country in the region – Iran – is in a box, is isolated, because the region has come together in this way. 

So that’s, I think, a path that you can see, we can see very clearly.  And again, the other path is that path of an endless cycle of insecurity, violence, destruction that has caused so much suffering and that needs to end.  But it requires everyone concerned to make difficult, real decisions about the future.

I think our job is to clarify those choices, clarify those decisions, and make sure that we’re doing everything possible to provide the support necessary for anyone who’s ready to make a hard decision about the future.

MR BRENDE:  And I know you’re meeting with your G7 colleagues here today, but also the key foreign ministers from the region, some of them sitting here on the first row listening very carefully to what you’re saying.  I think one of the things that you’ve been working hard on is a normalization plan also between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel.  And I think one of the preconditions there, I guess, will be from the kingdom that there is a clear path to a two-state solution.  And yesterday, it was also made very clear from many speakers here that what is fueling also this crisis is, of course, the Palestinian – unsolved Palestinian issues.  And if that was solved, it would also take a lot of momentum out of Iran and its proxies, some speakers said —  

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  That’s right.  That’s right. 

MR BRENDE:  — yesterday.  Do you feel that there is progress on the Saudi-Israeli piece? And do you feel that Israel sees the connection between the momentum for Iran and her proxies based on the big impasse that we’ve faced for decades on the Palestinian issues – issue?    

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So first, I think the single biggest, most effective rebuke to both Iran and Hamas would be Israel having normal relations with every country in this region and the realization of a Palestinian state.  Of course, both Hamas and Iran have opposed a two-state solution.  So almost by definition, achieving it would be a profound rebuke to everything that they’ve stood for and destroyed for in – over many years. 

Second, when it comes to normalization, look, I’m not going to speak for our hosts here, except to say that we have done intense work together over the last months.  And In fact, well before October 7th, this is what we were focused on.  And in fact, I was scheduled to be in the region, to be in Saudi Arabia and  in Israel, on October 10th, a trip that didn’t happen because of October 7th, to focus specifically on the Palestinian piece of any normalization agreement, because that is, as you said, an essential component.  I think – look, the work that Saudi Arabia and the United States have been doing together in terms of our own agreements, I think, is potentially very close to completion. 

But then in order to move forward with normalization, two things will be required: calm in Gaza and a credible pathway to a Palestinian state.  So to the extent we finish our work between us, then I think what’s been a hypothetical or a theoretical question suddenly becomes real.  And people will have to make decisions.

MR BRENDE:  Secretary, just shortly you went from China and back to D.C. for a day or two.  And I guess you’ve also seen what is unfolding at many campuses, at leading universities in the U.S. as a reaction to what is happening in Gaza.  Any reflections on that? 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I think what we’re seeing in my own country and in the region, many other places, reflects the deep emotions, the profound feelings that many people have at the suffering that so many people are enduring, and in particular the innocent children, women, and men in Gaza.  It’s a profound thing.  And I not only understand it, I understand why people are speaking out and speaking up.  Now —

MR BRENDE:  You remember when you were a student yourself, huh? 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yeah, I do, and I think this is something that, from generation to generation, people find things to be galvanized by, and I understand it profoundly.  At the same time, I have to say that I would wish that other elements were reflected in what people are saying, what they’re doing.  I don’t hear anything said about Hamas.  I don’t hear anyone reflecting on the fact that, obviously, the atrocity of October 7th never should have happened, but once it happened, everything could have been over in an instant if Hamas had stopped hiding behind civilians, put down its weapons, given back the hostages, and surrendered.  None of the suffering that we’ve seen since would have happened. 

So where is the demand on Hamas?  There’s been silence.  It’s almost as if it’s been erased from the story.  That’s something that I think we also need to reflect on even, as I say, I profoundly understand the deep emotion that people are expressing, whether it’s on our campuses or other places. 

MR BRENDE:  When you were in China, you raised a lot of questions to the Chinese leadership.  You met with President Xi Jinping and, of course, your counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi.  One thing I saw you also asked China to nudge Iran when it comes to this crisis, because we are very close to a full escalation two weeks ago between Israel and Iran.  We avoided that, but what was the response when you raised this with Wang Yi to nudge Iran? 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, two things.  First, Borge, as you said, we did come very close to an escalation, a spread of the conflict.  And I think because of very focused, very determined efforts, we’ve been able to avoid it, and that’s hugely important.  And this is something we’ve been on since day one, trying to make sure that even as we work to resolve Gaza, we don’t see this conflict spread to other places in the region.

Second, with regard to China, they have a clear, obvious interest in stability in the Middle East.  They obviously depend on the region for energy resources.  There are many vital trading partners here —

MR BRENDE:  Ninety percent of their oil comes – 90 percent of the Iranian oil, I think, is bought by China. 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Exactly.  Yeah, well, there’s that too, which is another challenge.  But you start with the premise that they have an interest in stability here.  They also have relationships; they have influence.  And so the question that I raised with our Chinese counterparts is:  Given that, we would urge you to use the influence, because it’s in your interest.  And also, it’s something that other countries would look to China to do.  So I think we’ve seen some examples of that, and that’s a positive thing.  But, again, it goes to their own self-interest. 

MR BRENDE:  Yeah, because I think China played a role in the rapprochement between the kingdom and Iran even if – I think you were part of it too, but China played a role in it.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  They did, and it’s something that we – that we supported, because, again, if we can find through diplomacy ways to ease tensions and to avoid any conflict, that’s a good thing.  And to the extent China can play a constructive role in advancing that, that’s good too. 

MR BRENDE:  I think you had other topics that you raised with Wang Yi too.  One of them was your concern over China’s support for Russia’s defense industry.  What did Wang Yi respond to that one?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I raised this both with my counterpart Wang Yi as well as with President Xi directly, and let’s understand what’s going on.  We have engaged with China from the start of the Russian aggression against Ukraine and urged them not to provide Russia with arms, with weapons that would fuel the aggression.  And I think it’s fair to say that China has not directly supplied Russia with weapons, with missiles, with munitions.  Iran is doing it; North Korea is doing it.  However, what China is doing is providing invaluable support to Russia’s defense industrial base that’s helping Russia deal with the mass oppression that’s been exerted through sanctions, through export controls, and other measures. 

If you look at what Russia’s done over the last year in terms of its production of munitions, missiles, tanks, and armored vehicles, it’s produced them at a faster pace than at any time in its modern history, including during the Cold War as the Soviet Union.  How has it been able to do that?  Because it’s getting massive inputs of machine tools, microelectronics, optics, mostly coming from China.  Seventy percent of the machine tools, 90 percent of the microelectronics are coming from China.  Now, these are dual-use items, but we know very clearly where so many of them are going. 

And this poses two problems.  It is enabling Russia to continue the aggression against Ukraine, so it’s perpetuating a war that China says it would like to see come to an end, as all of us would.  But second, it’s also enabling Russia to rebuild a defense industrial base that countries throughout Europe are deeply concerned will be turned against them after Ukraine is done.  And so at the very time that Russia is seeking better relations with countries in Europe, it’s also fueling the greatest challenge to European security since the end of the Cold War.  And as I shared with my Chinese colleagues, you can’t have it both ways. 

MR BRENDE:  What was the reaction?  Did they promise to then not supply 70 percent of the machine tools and those —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  It wouldn’t – it wouldn’t be fair of me to speak for them or to characterize their response.  Let’s see what actually happens.

MR BRENDE:  But you’re hopeful?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I’m not going to – I’m not going to put a label on it other than to say they’ve heard us clearly, but I think as important – maybe more important – they’re hearing this from European countries.  I’ve talked to a number of European leaders about this in recent weeks, including, for example, President Macron in France.  And I know the deep concern that Europeans have about this support for the defense industrial base in Russia, because, again, this poses a threat to Europe’s security – not only Ukraine, but all of Europe. 

MR BRENDE:  I also saw that in the meeting between you and President Xi Jinping he said that – at least Chinese media reported the following: that the U.S. and China should be partners, not rivals, and seek mutual success rather than harming each other.  What was your response to that?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, look, let’s look where we’ve been over the last year.  I went to China almost a year ago – the first trip that anyone from the administration had made at a senior level to China, because President Biden was determined that we would manage responsibly the relationship between our two countries.  He believes that’s something that’s a requirement and that the rest of the world looks to us to manage it responsibly, and that starts with communicating.  It starts with making sure that we have sustained engagement at every level of our government with our Chinese counterparts.  And it’s a reflection of the fact that, as I said, the relationship is incredibly complex, and it’s clearly very competitive, but we want to make sure that competition does not veer into conflict.  And the best way to do that is to be talking, to be engaged. 

There are aspects where we’re directly contesting each other, but there are also places where we’re cooperating.  And you start, again, by engagement, by talking.  And after my trip, we had other colleagues go to China, and then most important, President Biden and President Xi met at the end of last year on the margins on the APEC summit outside of San Francisco.  And they agreed that we would work to make sure that we were responsibly managing the relationship, putting as much stability into it as we possibly could, dealing directly with our differences, but also looking to see if there were areas where we can cooperate. 

And they identified a couple of areas.  One, making sure that we actually restored the military-to-military communications that we had but that had been interrupted – absolutely essential to trying to make sure that we don’t have a miscommunication, a misunderstanding that leads to conflict.  That’s been restored, and we now have these communications between our militaries at every level from the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs on down. 

Second, looking for areas where it made sense for us to actually cooperate.  One of those is on the scourge of synthetic opioids.  The number one killer of Americans between the ages of 18 and 45 is a synthetic opioid: fentanyl.  And just think about that for a second; let that sink in.  It’s not guns; it’s not cancer; it’s not automobile accidents.  It’s a synthetic opioid.  And the nature of this challenge is that chemicals that are made for perfectly legal purposes can be manufactured on one side of the globe and then diverted to criminal enterprises that turn it into an opioid, and that’s what’s been happening in the United States. 

But this problem where we’ve been a canary in the coal mine – it’s hit us hard; it’s hit us first – we now see spreading around the world.  And as our own market gets saturated, we see these criminal enterprises developing markets in Europe, in Asia, in Latin America.  Now, sometimes it’s fentanyl, sometimes it’s ketamine, sometimes it’s Captagon, sometimes it’s methamphetamines, but we see this spreading.  It’s why we’ve put together a coalition of more than 140 countries to work on this. 

But China has a critical role to play because it’s a huge chemical manufacturer, and we found – not by intent – than many of the chemicals that are used to synthesize fentanyl start in China, get sent near us, typically to Mexico, turned into fentanyl, come into the United States, kill a lot of people.  So we’ve sought to see if we couldn’t cooperate together, and we now have that cooperation, and we’ve seen positive steps that China has taken in terms of taking down some of the companies that are involved, putting in place new regulations.  More needs to be done – and this is what we talked about on this trip – to really carry this forward, but it’s progress and it’s a demonstration that we can work together when it’s in our mutual interest to do it. 

We’re now going to have a dialogue on artificial intelligence.  Really important that our countries talked about the risks, the safety issues attendant to AI, which is going to be one of the defining technologies of the coming years. 

MR BRENDE:  We need some traffic rules there —


MR BRENDE:  — on cyber crime, on climate change, on future pandemics, and all that.  Secretary, I know you have a busy agenda for peace here.  You – there is a lot to be achieved in the coming hours.  I don’t want to take too much of your time.  But maybe last question is coming back to the situation in Europe and Ukraine.  The Congress did pass 61 billion to Ukraine.  It was not an easy road.  The Ukrainians appreciated this a lot.  But is there a path towards an end of the Ukraine war?  We’re talking about breaking impasses and all this, but it’s very hard to see that – what such an end could be. 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, look, it depends mostly on Vladimir Putin and what he decides.  Now, I think Putin has believed that he can outlast Ukraine and outlast Ukraine’s supporters.  The success in – as we say, better late than never – getting the supplemental budget request is a demonstration that we’re not going anywhere, that support is continuing, and in fact the 61 or so billion dollars is as we speak moving forward.  And that’s critical because I think it’s both a practical and psychological boost to Ukrainians who have had a tough nine months or so, but also a clear demonstration that the support remains and it endures. 

Beyond that, there are a number of things that are happening that I think are a demonstration that we’re in this for Ukraine to be strong in the long haul and to stand strongly on its own two feet militarily, economically, democratically.  Militarily – beyond the support that we’re providing in the immediate and Europeans are providing – and by the way, I’ve said this before but we often talk about the challenges of burden sharing.  I’ve never seen a better example of burden sharing than in the case of Ukraine, where European partners, Asian partners, others, for as much as we’ve done, have done even more, and that continues. 

But even as we’re dealing with the immediate needs of Ukraine, we have now more than 30 countries that have negotiated or will soon complete negotiations on bilateral security agreements with Ukraine that will help it stand up a future force that can deter aggression and defend against aggression into the future.  At the same time, we’re driving private-sector investment into Ukraine.  There are tremendous opportunities despite the difficult circumstances, and we’re seeing tremendous interest in that.  And even the initial success with that, including Ukraine’s success in making sure that the Black Sea is open again to its commerce – it’s actually exporting more through the Black Sea now than it was before February of 2022.  Revenues are going into the state coffers.  You can see a future where Ukraine will be strong economically. 

And then democratically – the European Union opened accession talks with Ukraine, and that’s the best pathway to deepening Ukraine’s democracy.  All of that is the strongest possible answer to Putin, because it says that Ukraine will not only survive –  it can thrive going forward.  So I hope that Mr. Putin gets the message and demonstrates a willingness to genuinely negotiate consistent with the basic principles that are at the heart of the international community and the UN Charter: sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence.  If those are appropriately affirmed, there should be a resolution. 

Last thing I’ll say on this is that if you step back and look at it, I believe that this aggression by Russia has been a strategic debacle for Russia.  It’s had to make this massive effort that we talked about in trying to get around export controls and sanctions, but it’s reoriented its economy in a way that is not sustainable.  It may work in the near term; it can’t be sustained in the long term.  And in the aggregate, Russia is weaker economically, it’s weaker militarily given the destruction of so many of its forces, and it is weaker diplomatically in much of the world – not all of it, but in much of it.

At the same time, Ukrainians are united in ways that they’ve never been before, including united against Russia, which was not the case before 2014 when Russia committed the first aggression against Ukraine.  And as I mentioned before, the NATO Alliance, a defensive alliance with no designs on Russia – never has had them, never will have them – is stronger and larger than it was with two countries, Finland and Sweden, that no one thought would be interested in joining NATO a few years ago and now are members of the Alliance.  And of course, Europe has moved itself away from dependence on Russian energy in extraordinary ways in just the space of two years. 

All of this represents, I think, a huge strategic setback for Russia.  In many ways Putin has precipitated many of the things he’s sought to prevent.  I hope that there’s recognition of that.  And look, the minute that Russia demonstrates that it’s genuinely willing to negotiate, we’ll certainly be there, and I believe the Ukrainians will be there.

MR BRENDE:  Thank you.  Thank you very much, Secretary.  It has been a tremendous tour d’horizon, but it will not end with us, because excellent Tom Friedman you’re seeing walking there – Tom is going to moderate the next session. 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So I’m the opening act for Tom, right? 

MR BRENDE:  Yeah, so we’re the curtain raiser for Tom.  I think he likes that, huh? 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well that’s as it should be. 

MR BRENDE:  He will have a panel of key foreign ministers taking up the discussion, but thank you so much, Secretary, Tony, for your leadership —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you, Borge. 

MR BRENDE:  — and for your hard work.  Thank you very much. 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Appreciate it.  (Applause.)

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