QUESTION: So Secretary Blinken, welcome to Longer Tables.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. It’s great to be with you.
QUESTION: It’s amazing to have you here, and I’m really thankful, because I know you have so many things. It can be Chinese spy balloons above America, can be the war in Ukraine, can be earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, and everything else you have going on on the plate. But here at Longer Tables, we always try to get a little bit inside every one of our guests. So knowing that you are this fascinating man, graduated at Harvard, as far as I know you play guitar, you even have three songs in Spotify, you’re born in New York, you grew up in New York, in Paris, you are fluent in French. I want to know, Paris being – by many will agree with me – culinary capital of the world, what do you remember eating as a young man growing up in Paris?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, José, I have to tell you the truth. I moved to Paris when I was nine years old. And of course, I love French cuisine, and I would certainly not deny the statement you just made about France being a culinary capital, if not the culinary capital.
Having said that, when I was nine, you know, you’re also a little bit homesick, and the two things that I remember most when I was first in France – age 9, 10, 11 – two things: First, McDonald’s had just opened in France. And I remember going to McDonald’s all the time and lining up. It was – it became a phenomenon. In fact, I think when McDonald’s opened there originally, they didn’t think it would succeed, they didn’t think the French would take to it. And of course, it became a big hit.
But besides that, the International Herald Tribune, owned then by The New York Times and The Washington Post, was right around the corner from McDonald’s. And pre-internet, before you’d get your newspaper online, getting a hard copy of the paper was the biggest thing. And they used to actually put the hard copy of the International Herald Tribune in a display case almost right next to the McDonald’s. So for me, going to the McDonald’s, reading the Herald Tribune in the display case, that was the culinary experience.
One other thing. You miss certain things. No matter how wonderful the cuisine and the cooking is in a given country, you probably miss things from home. We had a friend of our family’s who worked at the United States embassy, and as a result we sometimes got access to the commissary and were able to buy some products that you couldn’t find back then in a French grocery store, like English muffins, like Bumble Bee tuna fish. So that’s what I remember.
QUESTION: So food, we can say that it’s always an amazing way, as I call this podcast Longer Tables, to unite different people, different countries, different civilizations where–
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Absolutely.
QUESTION: — food is also what brings us together in more ways than one. I don’t want to start a war, but – and I know you have to be highly diplomatic – but would you say that French cooking is your favorite cooking in the world, putting aside American cooking?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, my favorite cooking is usually where I am at any given time in the world. And look, one of the great parts of this job, even as we are working 24/7 when we’re traveling around to deal with some of the issues you just mentioned at the top of our conversation, is sometimes we get a chance to actually sample the local cuisine. And that’s an incredible way also to expand our horizons. And at the same time, you know, sometimes we’re having meals with our counterparts. And having that connection, that common element, is also a great way to break the ice.
QUESTION: This is the answer of the diplomatic chief of the American government, and I love it. And I would agree with you in more ways than one. Who is that Frenchman, Brillat-Savarin, that in 1826 – I mention him often, because he is the guy that said, “Tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you who you are.” But he had even a more powerful phrase. He said, “The future of the nations will depend in how they feed themselves.”
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yes.
QUESTION: So with that thought in mind, one of the things I love that began back in the days of the Obama administration that was the culinary diplomacy within the State Department. And I know right now the State Department is in a way reinvigorating and restarting this culinary diplomacy, which I’ve been invited to be one of the many American chefs that they’re going to be joining. Can you just describe to me why you believe culinary diplomacy is really important, and what ideas have you planned to make that happen?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, it goes back to what you just said. First of all, you know, food is quite literally life, and it’s the basis of just about everything. And that’s a powerful thing to not lose sight of, and to remember. But second, when it comes to culinary diplomacy, what are we talking about? We’re talking about the fact that for our country, one of the most powerful ways that we can connect with other countries, remind each other of our common humanity, remind each other of what we have in common more than what separates us, is through things like art, culture, music, sports, and food.
And so we’ve long had at the State Department cultural diplomacy that focuses on the arts, on sports, et cetera. But we’ve also in the past – and this is something that we’re working to revive – used food as a powerful connector. And so we have about 80 or so very wonderful and prominent chefs who are now acting as culinary diplomats for us, traveling to different countries, speaking about what they do and how they do it, showing what they do and how they do it.
And we find that even when there are times when we may have differences with a given country about certain policies that they’re pursuing or we’re pursuing, what connects people to people is exactly this. And so for us, being able to revive that and having enlisted some extraordinary chefs, I’m incredibly excited about what we can do to even better connect with other countries through food.
QUESTION: So obviously one of the big issues on the plate, on your plate, on the plate of everybody is the war that is happening in Ukraine, a country that has been attacked by Russia and obviously are seeing all these reports that the American Government is providing to Ukraine in the form of weapons and other things. But as you know, I have World Central Kitchen. We arrived to Poland, very quickly we went into Ukraine and we do what we do, which is providing food. Obviously Ukraine is defending themselves, but it’s very important that a country that is under attack – a massive attack with almost 12, 14 million people displaced or refugees, where all the systems right inside the country – food becomes an important one. Even if Ukraine is an exporter of food, because all the systems, the people —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yes.
QUESTION: — the displaced – food becomes important. I know through USAID that the – America has been providing huge help, helping many organizations to make sure that food is also a very important response of America, and other things like generators, et cetera.
If you will tell me right now, what more not only the USA but all the countries of the world supporting Ukraine – what more can we be doing to keep supporting Ukraine as this war seems to keep being longer than probably everybody was hoping for?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I think the people who most want this war to stop, of course, are the Ukrainians themselves because they’re on the receiving end of it, but all of us want to see it come to an end, but it has to come to an end on just and durable terms. That’s very important as well.
But look, I’d say two things. First, I’ve seen what you’re doing firsthand, and I had an opportunity to be with you, as you’ll remember, in Poland early on to see the extraordinary work of World Central Kitchen on the ground right next door to Ukraine, as well as learn about the work that you are doing in Ukraine. So I just want to thank you again and applaud you for this. And it’s of course not just in Ukraine and the neighboring countries, it’s in so many other places, and I suspect you’re probably on your way to Turkey in the days ahead.
But what we’ve seen, as you know better than anyone, over the last few years is we’ve seen an almost perfect storm of things that have endangered food security in ways that we haven’t even seen before. The combination of climate change, of COVID, and now conflict has had major disruptive effects on food security in places around the world, particularly in places that were very fragile to begin with.
And so for us, it’s been imperative that we do everything we can in two ways. One is to respond as best we can to emergency situations, and just to give you an example: Since the Russian aggression in Ukraine, which took initially so much food, so much grain off the market because Ukraine has been a breadbasket to the world, as is well known – Russia itself is an important player in this – we made sure that we were leading the emergency response, and we made more than $13 billion available just from February to today. And we remain the largest contributor to the World Food Program, which is a vital source of food for many countries around the world. And of course we’ve also tried to incentivize the production of fertilizers to make sure that the fertilizer shortage that was being experience can be countered.
But there’s something that’s, I think, as important and maybe even more important than the emergency response, which is working on trying to help countries develop an enduring productive capacity themselves so that they can be increasingly self-sufficient, and ideally even share what they’re producing with their neighbors and with other countries. It’s those kinds of investments in durable productive capacity that over time are going to make the biggest difference and make sure that when a crisis emerges, people are not buffeted by it.
One final thing. One of the things that came out of the war in Ukraine is trying to make sure that even in the midst of war, grain could continue to get out of Ukraine, and of course we have this Black Sea Grain Initiative that you’re well aware of that’s imperative to keep going.
QUESTION: Obviously that initiative was great. Turkey was a mediator, and obviously the United States. But we see that the Russians, sometimes they are not as compliant as probably they should.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah.
QUESTION: If the grain stops flowing from Ukraine to many countries in Africa and other parts of the world – more or less the estimates is that around 400 million people around the planet depend on that grain coming from Ukraine. If we are not successful in keep moving the grain out of Ukraine, we may be seeing in the next months ahead one of the bigger hunger crises we’ve been experiencing over the last 100 years. What else United States and international community can be doing to keep putting pressure on Russia to make sure, as you said not too long ago that Russia was weaponizing the grain —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yes.
QUESTION: — like happened in the so-called – the Holodomor that happened in the 1930s —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yes.
QUESTION: — where many million Ukrainians, millions, died because of starvation because Russia was very much depleting all the grain stocks of Ukraine, and this was terrible. Ukrainians remember that. That’s why they are so committed to make sure they have enough food, they have plenty of food, but also to feed the rest of the world.
What else U.S. and international community can do to keep putting pressure on Russia to make sure that grain has not become another form of a weapon?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah, José, look, you’re exactly right, and let me say a couple things about this. First, we have seen Russia weaponize food in ways that are not only harming people in Ukraine but harming people around the world. It never should have been necessary in the first place to have this Black Sea corridor. The only reason it became necessary is because Russia invaded Ukraine and then blockaded the key ports, including Odesa, from which Ukraine was exporting all of this grain and other – and other food supplies. And so it became necessary to find some way, even in the midst of war, of ensuring that the grain could continue to get out. The United Nations and Turkey played a lead role in getting an agreement to have this corridor, and it was working – working to get a lot of grain out that the Russians had been blocking.
Unfortunately, the Russians are now playing games with that corridor. For example, part of the corridor requires inspections of the ships that are going – going in and out, and the Russians have been slow-walking those inspections, cutting almost in half the number of ships that are able, as a practical matter, to leave every day.
So look, it’s one thing for us to say it and to focus on it – and we are, and so are many other countries – but I think those who are most directly affected by it, their voices are the most powerful, particularly countries in the Global South. More than half of this grain that’s getting out of Ukraine through this corridor is actually going to countries in the Global South, those who most need the food. And when Russia plays games with it, who’s affected first? It’s those very countries, people in those countries most desperately in need of food.
And of course it’s not just, José, as you know, the supply to a given country. The more food that gets out and onto the world markets, the more prices are stabilized and come down for everyone, even those who may not directly be getting this food. And by the way, we want to make sure that Russia is able to sell all of its food and fertilizer around the world. That’s important too, and they are. In fact, they’re selling more food and fertilizer now than even they were before the aggression. That’s important, and we want to do everything we can to facilitate that.
But I think as the voices from around the world are heard about how important it is to keep the food flow going, the grain flow going, that’s what’s most likely to have an effect on Russia, to make sure that at least in that small instance it acts in a responsible way.
QUESTION: Obviously we’ve seen what happened in Venezuela. We’ve – I was in bordering Colombia, I was inside Venezuela, and we saw a huge crisis with hundreds of thousands more Venezuelans leaving because they couldn’t be feeding their families. So this is not only what’s happening in Ukraine. The consequences of what may be affecting in Africa, what we are seeing also in Syria with all the refugees, and so many other parts. I have a feeling that more and more, and especially not only because climate change, which is a problem big enough, but also because the wars and political instability in many countries, I would argue that food is becoming also a national security issue.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yes.
QUESTION: My question to you is, don’t you think maybe it’s time that countries – every country, President Biden to everybody – that we will start having people that are national security food advisors.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yes.
QUESTION: — to the president, because it’s more than hunger. It’s pure instability that can have huge consequences that we may not foresee.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I couldn’t agree with you more. And first, José, you’re exactly right that food security is national security, and exactly for the reasons that you cite. First, we’re seeing that when food is scarce, that tends to fuel conflict, as people fight over a scarce resource. It fuels migration, as people have to go somewhere else just to feed their families. And we know the consequences that come from both of those.
Second, as we were just talking about, food is also being weaponized by those who in one way or another can control where it goes or what the prices are, as Russia has been trying to do, and weaponized in Ukraine. By the way, not only were the ports blockaded, but Russia was bombing farms, it was disrupting the transportation that moves food around the country, and in all of those ways it was able to weaponize food to put pressure on people in Ukraine.
So yes, it’s absolutely national security. But fundamentally it’s something that we feel strongly about that’s at the heart of our foreign policy, which is it’s a basic human right, or at least it should be. And that means that countries like the United States, that have some real ability, also have a responsibility to help strengthen food security, both as a matter of national security, but because it’s also the right thing to do.
Now, one of the things we’ve done at the State Department is we’ve tried to make sure that we had some of the best expertise in the world right here at the department in trying to advance food security. We have one of the greatest agronomists of our time, Cary Fowler, who is my senior advisor for all things having to do with food security. And this is exactly right; it’s something that has to be part and parcel of our foreign policy, of our national security.
QUESTION: I always realize that sometimes doing good doesn’t mean it’s doing a smart good. I was very happy with the initial response that not only the United States but the international community had in Haiti during – after the earthquake. I was really – as an American, I was really, really, really impressed.
But that’s when I realized that we were shipping big quantities of food to help feed the people. This is good, but then because we are always learning, sometimes creates a conundrum. Obviously, it’s normal that the country that produces so much food like the United States, that you will help put some of that money in the states, in the farmers that produce that food, and then let America do good not only to Haiti but to other parts.
Unfortunately, sometimes this creates certain issues like we may be putting farmers out of job into those countries. What can we do just to make sure that the international humanitarian aid doesn’t only do good, but creates a smart good and longer-term solution to the problems those poor countries face?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So José, this is something that we’re very focused on. And I’m focused on it. Samantha Power, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International
Development, is very much focused on exactly this. And it comes back to something that everyone knows very well: Give a person a fish, feed them for a day; teach them to fish, feed them for a lifetime. It’s what I was talking about a little bit earlier when I said yes, of course we have to be leaders in an emergency response when there’s a desperate situation and people need help now. But the way we can be most effective, and also address what you just talked about, is to actually transfer durable, productive capacity to other countries to make sure that they can fend for themselves, feed themselves, by making sure that they can produce in a sustainable way.
And the more that that – that those kinds of investments are made, the more we can help people genuinely learn to fish. That’s the answer. And we have a program currently, Feed the Future, which has significant resources in it, that’s designed to do just that – not just respond to what’s needed in the moment, but respond to the need to actually help countries develop their own capacity. That’s ultimately the answer, and that’s where our focus is.
QUESTION: Some people may question why America has to be so generous around the world in the many emergencies that they seem to keep happening. What would you tell to those Americans that sometimes they feel that maybe America has no business in providing relief to others?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: From my perspective, it’s almost never a zero-sum choice. We can and we should do both. We have the means to do it, the ability to do it, and if we’re smart about it, we’ll do it well.
But here’s what I know from being in this business for nearly 30 years. The world doesn’t organize itself. And unless the United States is engaged, unless we’re leaning in, unless we’re leading, then what often happens is you’ll get a vacuum, and that vacuum may be filled with bad things before it’s filled with good things. And history tells us that that has a way of coming back to bite us, whether we like it or not.
And so we were talking about how food security is national security, how food scarcity, food insecurity can lead to conflict, can lead to mass migration. Well, we know that in the past when there’s been conflict somewhere, we often get drawn in. When there are mass migrations, we know that that can have an effect on us, too.
And so it’s the smart thing to do – not just it’s the right thing to do – to try where we can to help get ahead of this, to help countries address these needs, and again, to do it in a way that builds their own capacity to fend for themselves over time.
So I don’t see this as a choice, as a zero-sum. I see it is something that’s necessary and essential to our national security, but also and finally to our human security. We see hunger anywhere, I think we want to address it. We see food insecurity anywhere, we want to do something about it. And we know that ultimately we’re all powerfully connected. If there is a weak link in the chain somewhere, it’s probably going to affect the whole chain, the whole chain of humanity.
QUESTION: I know time is already toward the end, and I thank you for the time, but I have one more question. I’m fascinated by the history of the world for food. One of the books I own is from a scientist that in 1810 he published. His name was Nicolas Appert. He was the guy that discovered, inventing canning.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yes.
QUESTION: And he did that because Napoleon Bonaparte was giving 10,000 gold francs to anybody that will come up with a system to feed the troops in the front lines.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yes.
QUESTION: Thanks to Napoleon, we had this kind of huge advancement in how to make sure that the goodness of the Earth could be used, protected, and put into jars so people could keep feeding themselves. We saw how the school lunch program that they got in America after World War II in part was because Pentagon, the Department of Defense, were the ones saying we need to keep feeding young Americans better; if not, we will not have soldiers to keep joining the ranks. So we see the power of the governments of the time used to keep moving technology, a new way through pure technology or good policy that is always good politics, and et cetera to solve problems that involve food.
Are we doing enough as America, investing dollars that at the end is not used to help America and help others, but at the end is good investment that becomes good policies that then becomes good politics for all? Should we do more?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So we’re already doing a lot, and we’re already doing, I think, more than most. I mentioned the World Food Program. We provide about 40 percent of its budget. If you look at other major countries around the world, they’re providing a lot less.
However, yes, I believe we can and should do more. But the question is: What do we do, and how do we do it? I think there’s some very fundamental things that can carry us forward where that money that you just talked about, particularly in research, in science, in finding new tools, can make a powerful difference.
For example, we know that in Africa, two of the challenges in really producing durable food productive capacity are making sure that the soil is as rich and strong as it can be, and that the seeds that go into that soil are resistant to challenges like climate change. A focus on making sure that we are researching and then deploying the best methods for ensuring the quality of soil and the resilience of seeds, that I believe can make a huge difference going forward. That’s something that we’re very focused on right now.
QUESTION: So Secretary Blinken, I know these are challenging times. Thank you very much for being here in Longer Tables. Thank you for your leadership and making sure that America is there. On behalf of sometimes the voiceless, sometimes the people that feel alone, thank you for the work you do, And hopefully I’ll see you next – you play a song, and I’ll cook, and we’ll open a good American, French, Spanish wine.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I think I put much greater faith in your cooking than in my singing. But José, right back at you. I can’t begin to tell you how heartwarming it is to see the work that you and your incredible teams are doing around the world. And as I said, I’ve been able to see it firsthand, and what you’re doing represents the best of humanity at a time when we really need it. And so thank you to you.
QUESTION: And see you soon, my friend.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I look forward to it. Thanks, José.
 This interview was aired on February 21, 2023.