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QUESTION:  Secretary Blinken, thank you so much for joining us here at Reuters NEXT.  You’ve had a busy week this week in Europe.  I mean, in fact, I think it’s fair to say that you’ve had a busy year.  So I guess my first question is:  Is it about to get worse?  Is Russia going to invade the Ukraine?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I certainly hope not.  And you’re right; we’ve had a busy week, and a big part of the week was engaging with our closest allies and partners about a deeply shared concern that Russia is putting itself in a position for renewed aggression against Ukraine.  And what we’ve been seeing in recent weeks is deeply, deeply concerning.

And it was very important for me to have the opportunity at NATO and then after that at the OSCE meetings to talk to our closest allies and partners to see that there is a deeply felt sense of shared concern and also a determination to make it clear to Russia that if it engages in renewed aggression against Ukraine there will be very serious consequences.

At the same time, there is a very different path forward, and that path is through diplomacy.  As you know, Russia and Ukraine signed the so-called Minsk agreements many years ago.  They haven’t been implemented.  If they were to be, that would be a way to resolve the problems that continue to exist in eastern Ukraine and restore sovereignty to Ukraine over its territory.

So I had a chance, too, to speak to the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.  We had a long conversation about this.  And I hope very, very much that Russia heard us very clearly and will take that into account and choose a diplomatic path, not a path of confrontation and aggression.

QUESTION:  So let’s talk a little bit then about this diplomatic role.  And President Biden, I believe just now, maybe an hour ago, said that he’s preparing a comprehensive plan.  So could I ask you three questions?  What exactly does Russia need to do?  What exactly do the Russian-backed separatists need to do?  And what does Ukraine need to do for a solution to this crisis?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, in the first instance, Alessandra, the most important thing is for Russia to pull back the forces that it’s massed near the Ukraine border, to de-escalate the crisis, because resolving anything diplomatically when a gun is being held to someone’s head is very, very difficult.  So I think that’s the – that’s the first step.

Second, what both countries need to do, Russia and Ukraine, is to make clear that they’re actually committed to implementing what they agreed to under the Minsk agreements.  Most of that has not been implemented, and most of what’s not been implemented has not been implemented by Russia.  There are also things that Ukraine has to do, and of course, there are things that the separatist forces have to do.

But I think in the first instance pull back the forces, de-escalate, and in the first instance restore the ceasefire that had existed and had been in place through 2020.  And then my hope and expectation would be that we along with the French and Germans who have this so-called Normandy process could really re-engage with Ukraine and with Russia to see if they will implement the steps that they agreed to in the Minsk process.  If they do that, then we can resolve this diplomatically.

QUESTION:  Let’s go a little deeper.  Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that his red lines are the deployment in Ukraine of missile strike systems, hypersonic missiles, and MK-41 launchers.  Does NATO have the right to make such deployments regardless of Russia’s objections?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I think the most important thing that President Putin seems to discount or ignore is that NATO is a defensive alliance.  It’s a transparent alliance.  It is not an alliance aimed at Russia.  It’s not an alliance that is going to commit acts of aggression against Russia.  The only aggression that we’ve seen in this space in recent years, unfortunately, has been from Russia – first Georgia and then Ukraine.

So I think this is a very misplaced way of looking at things.  The only threat of aggression that currently exists is renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine.  That’s what we very much want to make sure doesn’t happen.  And look, President Biden and President Putin, as you know, spoke extensively in Geneva a few months ago.  The main point that President Biden made to President Putin was our strong preference would be to have a more stable and predictable relationship between the United States and Russia, and there are areas where we have overlapping interests and we should be able to work together if we can have some stability and predictability in the relationship.

Russia’s actions and the threat of further aggression against Ukraine moves us in exactly the opposite direction.

QUESTION:  And exactly for this, for the more aggressive stance, then what does President Biden hope to get out of the upcoming meeting with Putin, which I believe the date of which has not been set?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I expect they’ll be speaking in the very near future.  And look, there’s no substitute for direct conversation, communication between officials, which is what I was doing with my counterpart Foreign Minister Lavrov, but especially between President Biden and President Putin.  President Putin is the decision maker in Russia, and it’s very important that he hear directly from President Biden.

So I think when they speak, the President will lay out pretty much what I’ve shared with you, which is, first, our strong desire for greater predictability and stability in the relationship; but also our determination, not as a threat but simply as a fact, to stand up resolutely against any reckless or aggressive actions that Russia may pursue; and also to defend the territorial integrity, the sovereignty, the independence of Ukraine.

And Alessandra, there’s a larger principle or principles at stake here.  It’s very much about Ukraine, but it’s about something bigger, because what we can’t have is one country changing the borders of another country by force – a democracy – and allow that to stand with impunity.  We can’t have one country trying to dictate to a neighboring democracy what its choices are, with whom it can associate, what its policies should be.  And if we, again, allow that to stand with impunity, that has the risk of undermining the entire international order that is the best guarantor for peace, stability, and the ability for people to make progress.  So that’s why this is important, both in terms of Ukraine but there’s something broader at stake.

QUESTION:  So following up on what you just said, it does seem that President Putin has seized several pressure points to use against Europe – the military threat against Ukraine, migrants on the Belarusian border with the EU, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.  Do you see a connected geopolitical strategy here?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, probably yes, which is to say these things are all happening and they are tied together.  And what we’re seeing in Belarus on the borders of three countries, the really outrageous use of migrants as a political weapon – well, that can sow chaos and instability and at the same time the mounting pressure against Ukraine, and yes, energy too, especially heading into the winter.  I think these things are joined.

But here’s what’s important.  In everything that I heard from talking to European colleagues in the last few days at NATO and then at the OSCE, there is not just the shared concern about what Russia is doing but a determination to stand resolutely against it.  And so, again, in the case of Ukraine, if Russia decides to pursue a confrontation course, if it renews its aggression, there will be very serious consequences, and not just from us but from other countries as well in Europe.

And I hope very much that Russia factors that into its thinking, especially because there is a much better way forward.  A confrontation would be in no one’s interests.  But President Biden has been equally clear with President Putin, just as we want a more stable and predictable relationship, we are also – he’s been very clear about if Russia engages in reckless, aggressive actions, we’ll stand against them.

QUESTION:  But just to play devil’s advocate here, I mean, would you accept that Russia, which has historically had an obsession with security buffer zones, has legitimate security concerns about the placement of NATO infrastructure and forces, or is it just posturing and a growing NATO presence in Ukraine is just a fact of life?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, here is what’s really paradoxical about the history of the last few years, particularly with regard to Ukraine.  Virtually everything that President Putin has done in a sense has precipitated exactly what he says he wants to prevent.  The invasion of Ukraine in 2014 has alienated the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians from Russia, and it didn’t have to be that way.

Ukraine can have the European future that its – the overwhelming majority of its people want, and still have close ties and a close relationship with Russia.  Well, Russia’s actions in 2014, I think, changed that dramatically.  At the same time, those actions have precipitated NATO shoring up its own defenses and its own defenses closer to Russia – exactly what President Putin says he wants to prevent.

So I – again, what would make sense would be for President Putin to really think this through; and if he has concerns or – and legitimate concerns about security, then don’t engage in actions that are provocative and that will cause a defensive alliance to shore up its defenses.

QUESTION:  Let’s switch to another hot spot, China.  I have to ask you the same question:  Is China going to invade Taiwan?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I think that would be a potentially disastrous decision, and the short answer is this:  We’ve been able over the last 40-plus years to manage this question and manage it effectively in a way that’s allowed remarkable progress for the people of Taiwan, a strong democracy, a strong economy, an innovative country that has a lot to contribute to the world, and done it in a way that has also maintained important stability in the relationship between the United States and China, grounded in the “one China” policy which we continue to adhere to, as well as the Taiwan Relations Act, the three declarations, the Six Assurances.  There’s a whole mantra that the experts know, but one that we remain committed to and that has worked.

And unfortunately, what we’ve seen in the last couple of years is China trying to change that status quo by increasing the pressure on Taiwan, by engaging in provocative military maneuvers and actions, by trying to isolate Taiwan and deny its engagement with the rest of the world, with the international community.  And that’s what’s dangerous.

So we are resolutely committed to Taiwan, to making sure it has the means to defend itself, but here again, I hope that China’s leaders think very carefully about this and about not precipitating a crisis that would have, I think, terrible consequences for lots of people and one that’s in no one’s interest, starting with China.

QUESTION:  So you say and have said that the U.S. will defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion, but do you commit to sending in U.S. military forces?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We’ve been very clear and consistently clear over many years that we are committed to making sure that Taiwan has the means to defend itself.  And whether that’s in defense articles, in services, we will continue to make good on that commitment.  We – President Biden was actually in the United States Senate when the Taiwan Relations Act was voted, and he was a strong supporter of that.  He maintains that support as President of the United States, and we’ll maintain that going forward.

QUESTION:  This week, Reuters reported that the U.S. would approve the sale of key technology for a Taiwan submarine program.  What was the thinking behind supporting – what is the thinking behind supporting this submarine program?  And do you think it’s enough of a deterrent against Chinese incursion?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I can’t comment on reports of specific sales and provision of specific articles one way or another.  When – if and when we move forward on anything, of course, we notify Congress and work through these things that way.  But again, the basic principle that we’re adhering to and acting on is our commitment to making sure that Taiwan has the means to defend itself.  That’s what we’re focused on.

QUESTION:  Of course, if Reuters reported it, then it is true.


QUESTION:  But U.S. allies in Asia have watched the withdrawal from Afghanistan with some concern and they wonder whether America will have their backs as tensions with China ratchet up in their region.  If China were to move against Taiwan militarily, can Japan, Australia, South Korea be sure that America would intervene?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, there are a few important things at play here, and it’s a big question that defies a simple answer except to say this:  I think everything that allies and partners have seen from this administration is a very strong re-engagement, reinvigoration, reaffirmation of our core alliances and partnerships, starting in Asia and in Europe.  The very first trip that I was able to take as the Secretary of State was to Japan and Korea along with Lloyd Austin, the Secretary of Defense.  We, of course, have moved forward with the Quad initiative with Australia, Japan, and India.  The President’s been deeply engaged throughout, including with all of the ASEAN countries at the most recent summit.  And we have been very clear about our engagement and leadership as an Indo-Pacific country.

And of course, the same thing applies in Europe, and I’ve found, at least in my own travels around the world, that whether it’s in Europe, whether it’s in Asia, whether more recently in Africa, countries have been extremely welcoming of the fact that we’re re-engaged, and re-engaged across the board.  We obviously have strong, important defense and military commitments, but we’ve been re-engaged diplomatically, we’ve been re-engaged in our partnerships, in our alliances, we’ve been re-engaged multilaterally in institutions that are actually shaping all of the rules and norms and standards that people will live by.  And that’s been felt, and it’s been welcomed.

QUESTION:  Of course, diplomacy takes many forms, and the Winter Olympics are coming up in China.  The Women’s Tennis Association has just announced that they will not be holding tournaments in China because of worries, as you know, about Peng Shuai.  Should the IOC do the same with the games?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I can’t speak for the IOC or advise it what to do.  And I think many countries are looking at the Olympics, including the United States.  We’ve been talking to lots of partners and allies about how they’re thinking about it, and I’m sure that countries will be coming to decisions about how they’re going to approach this in the near term, because we are getting closer to the games.

QUESTION:  Indeed, indeed.  Just to wrap up on China, how would you describe the differences between the China policy of the Trump administration and that of the Biden administration?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, in the first instance, it starts with the fundamental approach we’re taking.  And let me say this, because it’s important:  Look, the relationship with China is clearly among the most complicated and the most consequential of any relationship we have.  And by the way, that holds true for many other countries as well.  And it can’t be summed up in a bumper sticker.  There are different aspects to the relationship – competitive, clearly.  And that’s fine as long as the playing field is level and it’s fair.  Confrontational in other aspects, unfortunately, because of an increasingly aggressive posture that China’s taken beyond its borders, but also cooperative, because there are many places where it remains imperative for us to try to find ways to work together, whether it’s climate, whether it’s on global health, and many other issues, because it’s hard to move the ball without China being part of that.

But here is the common denominator that gets to your question.  In each of these aspects of the relationship, the approach that we’re taking is to do it in partnership with our allies and with our partners, because we’re going to be much more effective in each of these areas if we’re working closely with them.  And so we’ve spent a lot of time working not just in Asia but also in Europe and other parts of the world to find convergence in the approach that we’re taking to the different challenges that China poses.  And I can say after 10 months that there is increasing convergence on the approach that all of our countries are taking, looking at the challenge in very much the same way, looking at the competitive aspect, the cooperative aspect, and also the more confrontational aspect.  That’s one.

The second thing that I think is different is that we’ve also made a major effort to invest in ourselves, to invest in our competitiveness, to invest in our people.  And some of that has been translated in things that have happened here in Washington.  Because ultimately, our strength at home, our ability to demonstrate that we are delivering for our own people, and really investing in our future and our own competitiveness, that’s also what’s going to stand us in very good stead when it comes to dealing with the challenge that China poses.

And again, you’ve seen dramatic historic progress already on that.  We’ve gone from a position years ago where we were the leading country in terms of the investments we were making in research and development, in education, in infrastructure, to falling way back.  Well, President Biden has reversed that, and now you’re seeing those kinds of investments being made again.  That’s going to have a profound impact on the intense competition that we’re engaged in with China.

QUESTION:  You talk often about the need to strengthen democracy inside the U.S. in this context.  What is the one thing that the United States should do to strengthen its own democracy?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, on one level, one of the joys of my job is I don’t do politics.  So – and I certainly don’t want to change that now.  But look, here’s the thing, and this is true not just for the United States.  I think it’s true for democracies around the world, and it’s one of the reasons that the President has convened the Summit for Democracy that’ll take place next week virtually, but that’ll lead to a year of action, and it is bringing countries together to do two things: to look at what each of us can do to strengthen our own democratic resilience at home, to face some of the internal challenges that democracies are facing; and, at the same time, what we can do working together to strengthen democratic resilience around the world and support democracies that are being challenged around the world.

One of the most important issues is this, because this is how President Biden sees it:  As we’re looking at the world, we see one of the most important contests of our time, of our moment, being a contest – and a renewed contest, in a sense – between autocracies and democracies.  And the case that autocracies are making is that they can perform better, they can deliver more effectively for their people; that democracies are slow, they’re paralyzed, they’re polarized.  And I think what’s incumbent upon us is to demonstrate that that’s wrong, profoundly wrong.  And yes, a big part of that starts at home by showing that no, we’re not paralyzed, we’re not inexorably polarized; we can actually do the things, make the investments in ourselves, and work with other likeminded countries in ways that will I think enable us to deal with the challenge coming from autocracies much more effectively.

QUESTION:  This week you expressed pessimism about Iran’s intent to engage in good faith in the nuclear talks.  The path for diplomacy seems to be failing.  Is it time for Israel and the United States to explore military options to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We continue to believe that the best path forward is diplomacy and the return – a mutual return to compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, the so-called JCPOA.  But you’re exactly right that that path is getting shorter and shorter and shorter, and the reason for that is twofold.  I think the decision to pull out of the agreement was a disastrous mistake because what’s happened since is that Iran has used that as an excuse, despite the maximum pressure applied against Iran, to also renege on its commitments under the agreement and to inexorably rebuild the nuclear program that the agreement had put in a box.  And we’ve seen particularly over the last months Iran continuing to move forward, spinning more sophisticated centrifuges, enriching to higher degrees in ways that are profoundly dangerous and that are also dramatically shortening the space that we have for a return to complying with the agreement that would actually recapture the benefits of the agreement.

We had six months of talks before the Iranian elections.  We actually made real progress in working through differences and coming close to being able to get to a place where we would have a mutual return with both countries making good on their commitments.  Then we had a huge gap after the elections where the new government refused to engage.  Now we’ve had this first round of talks since the new government’s in and what we’ve seen in the last couple of days is that Iran right now does not seem to be serious about doing what’s necessary to return to compliance, which is why we ended this round of talks in Vienna.

We’re going to be consulting very closely with all of our partners in the process itself – the European countries as well as Russia and China – but also with other very concerned countries, with Israel, with the Gulf countries.  And we will see if Iran has any interest in engaging seriously, but the window is very, very tight, because what is not acceptable and what we will not allow to happen is for Iran to try to drag out this process while continuing to move forward inexorably in building up its program.  So we’ve said all along that if the path to a return to compliance with the agreement turns out to be a dead end, we will pursue other options.

QUESTION:  What are those other options?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I’m not going to telegraph that here with you, but we’ve been doing a lot of work on that and we’ve been doing a lot of discussions about that with other countries, with other partners.  But here’s the bottom line:  It is profoundly, I think, in everyone’s interests to resolve the nuclear problem diplomatically.  It’s also the most effective way to deal with it.  Indeed, the JCPOA was a very effective agreement, not only in putting the nuclear program in a box, putting it in a box that had the most effective and intrusive monitoring and inspections regime of any arms control agreement.  And there are many other problems, unfortunately, that Iran poses in terms of its conduct, in terms of support for terrorism, support for proxy groups that are destabilizing countries, and those problems, as bad as they are, would be even worse if Iran had a nuclear weapon and felt it could act with even greater impunity.

So putting the nuclear problem back in the box I think is the first critical piece to dealing with the challenges posed by Iran.  And one of the positive things that’s happened, even though we have not been able to get back to compliance – one of the positive things that’s happened as a result of our re-engagement in the effort to do that is we’re now back on the same page with our closest allies and partners.  We’ve been divided, and ironically, the United States was isolated as a result of pulling out of the agreement, not Iran.  Well, we’re now in a different place, and even Russia and China are clearly frustrated with what Iran is doing or not doing in these talks.

So Iran has some very important decisions to make in the days ahead.  And as I said, we – it will not be a case where they can continue to advance their program and tread water on talks.  We’re either going to get back into compliance with the agreement, or we’re going to have to look at dealing with this problem in other ways.

QUESTION:  I’d like to ask you about Ethiopia, an area that we have covered.  It’s a country that we have covered extensively.  Thousands have been killed, 400,000 people in Tigray are living in famine, and efforts by the U.S. and African Union to get the two sides to the negotiating table have stalled.  And even the threat that Ethiopia could lose duty-free access to U.S. markets doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference.  And in fact, the prime minister has himself gone to the battle front.  What leverage does the U.S. have in Ethiopia?  What specific sanctions could you impose?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, Alessandra, first let’s look at the stakes because they are – they’re high; they’re significant.  And they’re significant in – first of all in human terms, and second of all in strategic terms.  The human terms, we’ve already seen: the extraordinary cost of this conflict, the tremendous suffering of people, particularly in Tigray.  And we have – we’ve had as many as a million people being on the brink of famine.  That alone is horrific.  But the perpetuation of this conflict is also having a dramatic impact on increasing ethnic tensions throughout the country, and that really risks the implosion of the country itself with tremendous spillover effects in a vital region of the world.  And that is good for no one.

So we have been intensely engaged, supporting the efforts of the African Union led by former Nigerian President Obasanjo, who has been the lead negotiator.  There have been other very important actors in Africa, notably President Kenyatta of Kenya, who have been engaged on this.  And of course, we have our own diplomats who have been working to basically do three things.  One, everyone needs to stop in place, whether it is the TPLF or – and the Tigrayan Defense Forces trying to move south, or the Ethiopian Defense Forces responding and trying to move north, and then other ethnic forces that have come into the mix.  Then people need to sit down around a table and negotiate a more durable ceasefire.  Humanitarian assistance has to start to flow in sustained ways into areas that need it.  And ultimately, there needs to be a political resolution to the differences that have emerged.  That’s what we’ve been driving toward.

Now, we have not just the tools of our diplomacy.  Yes, we have sanctions authorities that we’ve put in place.  We’ve used some of them already against Eritrea, which has been unfortunately a very negative actor in this drama.  Those tools remain at our disposal for others if they are, instead of trying to engage in a diplomatic resolution of this problem, perpetuating it.  But we’re in constant engagement and constant contact with all of those who are working to try to bring this to a close in terms of the military conflict and get people off the battlefield and at the negotiating table.  That’s what’s so critical.

QUESTION:  Last question, because we have to close.  It’s nearing the end of your first year on the job.  (Laughter.)  What is your greatest accomplishment?  What is your greatest regret?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So look, when it comes to – I almost hate to talk in terms of accomplishments or regrets.  Here’s what I can say, because this is very much a work in progress.  And when we came in into office – look, every administration has an inheritance.  We had an inheritance of America – of an America that had been disengaged from the world, that had become distanced from our closest allies and partners.  And of course, we had COVID-19, which we continue to have, but we were in a much worse situation then.  We had an economic – a dramatic economic challenge around the world.

And the first and most important thing that we’ve done over these last 10 months is we put back in place the foundation for American engagement and American leadership – revitalizing alliances, revitalizing partnerships, re-engaging in the multilateral system, whether it’s the Paris Climate Agreement, whether it’s the World Health Organization, whether it’s the Human Rights Council.  And these things matter because they are a means to the ends that we all are seeking to achieve, and here’s why.  When we’re looking at the really big problems that we face around the world but that are having an impact on our people’s lives – like climate change, like COVID, like the impact of emerging technology on everyone’s life – we can’t effectively deal with those in a way that really advances our interests and our values alone.  We have to have coordination and cooperation with other countries.

And that’s what we’ve built.  We see that around the world in alliances that are now coming together and converging on ways to deal with these challenges.  We see it in results that we’ve already gotten at COP 26 just recently.  A lot more to be done for sure, but just based on what was agreed there – the global methane pledge, reducing methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030 – if China gets into that as well, that will be the equivalent of taking every plane out of the skies, every ship off the seas, in terms of emissions.  The commitments to deal with deforestation and reforestation will have a profound impact in restoring and reviving carbon sinks.  Sixty-five percent of global GDP, based on the commitments that they’ve made just on climate, if implemented – and that’s a big if – would keep us at 1.5 degrees warming going forward.  Now we need to get the rest of folks involved, but that didn’t happen accidentally.  That happened because the United States re-engaged.

We are now the leading, by far, donor of vaccines around the world for COVID-19, principally through COVAX, making sure that that’s done in an equitable fashion with no political strings attached.  And that is having a dramatic impact on dealing with the pandemic.  We have a lot more to do, especially in Africa, and we have a lot more to do to make sure that not only are vaccines being manufactured, where we’ve made dramatic progress, but that shots get into arms. And that’s what we’re going to focus on going forward so we get ahead of this pandemic.

I could go through the list.  But what I’m seeing, Alessandra, is that because we’ve re-engaged, because we’re building greater convergence with our closest allies and partners in Europe, in Asia, re-engaged in Africa, we’re now able to deal with all of these challenges in a way that brings greater cooperation to bear, greater coordination to bear, and so a greater chance of actually succeeding.  Now we have to do the work of actually getting things done.  And happily, we have a little bit of time left to do that.

QUESTION:  Secretary Blinken, thank you very much for joining us today.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Great to be with you.  Thanks for having me.

U.S. Department of State

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