QUESTION: We are thrilled to welcome on the show today the Secretary of State, our friend, our former colleague, Tony Blinken. Tony, it’s great to see you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Tommy, great to be with you. Great to be with you, Ben. Great to see you guys.
QUESTION: I wore a shirt with a collar, Tony.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I was actually going to note that, Ben. This is – I really take that as a sign of deep respect, so thank you. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Yes, it’s respect for you and the office, sir.
QUESTION: Yeah, my hair is barely dry from the shower – like it’s not. (Laughter.)
Tony, we know you’re going to go to Ukraine later today, and I think I want to ask about that, but I was going to start with a quick Iran question. I know you’re closely monitoring these talks in Vienna, Austria where diplomats are trying to figure out a way to revive the 2016 Iran nuclear deal, something near and dear to our hearts, and prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
The latest reports are that Iran wants a guarantee from the U.S. that the United States won’t unilaterally quit the agreement and reimpose sanctions like President Trump did in 2018. But binding a future president involves passing a treaty that gets two-thirds of the vote in the Senate, which we all know is challenging.
So my question is: Is that a fair request given the recent history, and are there any creative ideas that you’ve heard floated for how a president, President Biden, might be able to address the Iranian concern and get this thing – get this thing done?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, Tommy, just to take a step back for one second – and you guys know this better than anyone because you were immersed in this when you were in government – I think it’s fair to say that the decision to pull out of the nuclear agreement was one of the worst decisions made in recent U.S. foreign policy history.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks to that agreement, we had Iran’s nuclear program in a box contained. We were able with great assurance because of the extensive monitoring and verification procedures that were put in – feel very confident about that. And even the past – previous administration said that Iran was making good on its commitments.
Unfortunately, what we’ve seen – more than unfortunately – is since we’ve pulled out, Iran using that as an excuse to resume many of the dangerous activities it was engaged in before the agreement stopped them from engaging in those activities. And now we’re at a place where, after having pushed back the time it would take them to produce enough fissile material for one weapon to a year, we’re now down to a matter of weeks by public records.
So this is what we inherited, unfortunately, and we are – we still think that the best outcome would be to put that program back in the box by getting back into the agreement, the so-called JCPOA.
So you’re right; one of the things that Iran has asked for is guarantees that we won’t pull the rug out again. And you’re also right that in our system you can’t provide that kind of hard and fast guarantee. President Biden can certainly say what he would or wouldn’t do as President as long as Iran remains in compliance with the agreement, but we can’t bind future presidents. This is one of the things that we’re talking about.
But I’m obviously not going to negotiate in public even with my close friends on the Pod. We’ll see where – we’ll see where we get. But here’s the reality: We have very little runway left to see if we can get back into mutual compliance, because what’s happened is this: Because the Iranians have restarted so many of the dangerous activities that the program that – the agreement had stopped, they are learning more, building up more knowledge, building up greater capacity to break out more quickly. And even if we return to all of the restrictions under the agreement, we’re going to get to a point where we can’t recapture some of the benefits of the agreement. So that’s a real consideration.
The other problem we have is that they are producing enough material enriched to very high levels that the – we’re getting down to a breakout time right now that is really, really troubling.
So we’re working hard at this. We think it’s in the interest of the United States and in the interest of allies and partners to see if we can get back to the agreement, but I think we’ll know that in the next few weeks.
QUESTION: So Tony, it’s kind of groundhog day here – we’ve talked about Iran, now Ukraine – and you’re heading out to Ukraine. And I wanted to ask you a question that gets to the value of that experience of going. Obviously, people watch this stuff and they see readouts of phone calls and they see you shaking hands with somebody and walking into some ornate meeting space.
But you’ve been to Ukraine a bunch over the years, I know, and I just – I wanted to start by asking you: Is there a moment you’ve had in Ukraine where the stakes of what they’re going through really hit home to you, like an interaction with somebody? How do you bring home for people that this is a country full of human beings under threat trying to do something hard? Like what is, what is a moment you’ve had where you were standing there somewhere in Ukraine and had an interaction with somebody or something that really kind of hit home with what’s at stake here?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah, sure. Ben, first of all, I think we all know there is no real substitute for doing things face to face, or at least mask to mask these days. You feel things. You pick up things. You get things from that kind of direct conversation that you can’t get certainly on the phone and even on Zoom. So in and of itself, it’s really important to be there, to listen, to watch, to pick up things.
Second, one of the things that brought this home for me was one of the times that I was there after the Russian invasion of 2014. I was there several times after that. I was in government then working with both of you. And walking along the Maidan, talking to people who had been there, who stood up when this government came in and basically took away the promise that Ukrainians had voted for to be able to have a future with Europe. And then they took to the streets peacefully to say this is not what we want, and the snipers started at them, gunning down people, peaceful protesters in the middle of this large public famous gathering place in Kyiv. But actually being there on the ground and sort of putting yourself where these people had been, and looking up at the buildings where the snipers had been shooting down at them gives you a pretty palpable feel for what people had done to stand up for their own democratic right to choose the future of their country.
And the other thing I’d say is this. For so many of us, for many Americans, yeah, they ask the question, “Why are we so focused on Ukraine? Why does this matter? It’s a half a world away. And what’s so important about this?” And the answer is this: Of course, Ukraine matters in and of itself, and we’ve been standing strongly over many years for its sovereignty, for its territorial integrity, for its independence, the formula you hear repeated endlessly. But it’s also bigger than Ukraine, because what’s happening is this: You’ve got one country, Russia, by its actions saying that it can just change the borders of its neighbor by force, saying it can decide for its neighbor what its decisions are going to be, with whom it may choose to associate, not the people of that country through their elected government. You have a country saying it’s fine to have a sphere of influence where we basically bend neighbors in our area to our will, not their own choices.
And if we let that go with impunity, then I think we open a huge Pandora’s box where it’s not just Ukraine; it’s other autocratic countries around the world like Russia that say, “We’re going to do this too.” And that is a recipe for conflict. It’s a recipe for chaos. It’s a recipe for human suffering, and it’s a recipe for undermining democracy. So that’s why this is important, and it goes from the individuals, from that person at the Maidan to something that actually affects Americans and people everywhere.
QUESTION: Well, what I was going to ask you – I mean, one of the things that’s frustrating or challenging about this is that this is not something that’s going to be solved, even in the tenure of one president, in the sense that, like, Russia is not going to totally back off and Ukraine is going to totally be free to make its own choices. You’re in some ways in the near term trying to prevent worse outcomes, like the success is like if Russia doesn’t invade this country, right?
And so stepping back, Russia has done so much to shape the story in the world over the last decade through disinformation campaigns, through Putin’s force of his personality, through actions like invading (inaudible) Ukraine. How are you guys thinking about challenging that momentum? How are we telling our story? How do we push back both against the whataboutism on Ukraine but also this flood of disinformation?
Because right now, I think the sense of the world is that the momentum is on the side of the autocratic story, whether it’s emanating from Russia or China, but we’ll focus on Russia in this regard. How do you piece together a counter-disinformation strategy, a narrative on Ukraine, and just the story that we stand for in a way that begins to push back against that Russian momentum?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Ben, I think it’s one of the fundamental challenges of our time. And you’re right, first of all, that many of these problems, challenges are not going to be solved in one fell swoop, that sometimes success in foreign policy is preventing something even worse from happening. Sometimes success is pushing things down the road and buying time and space to see what else comes along to help you shape things in a better way.
But at the same time, you’re right that we have a huge challenge, particularly in the information space, the misinformation space, the disinformation space – something that we’ve felt acutely and it’s been growing, growing, growing to the point where it’s one of the major challenges that we have in our own security.
So look, I think there are a number of things that we are doing, we can do, we need to be doing more of. We’ve got to relentlessly and effectively tell our own story. So much of this is about narrative, and one of the challenges that we have is that facts and figures are one thing; actually having a narrative, a story that resonates with people, is just or maybe even more important. And so what we say, the way we say it, how we get it out there is really important. Look, we’re supposed to be pretty good at narrative, so that’s something that I think we ought to be able to build on.
A lot of this is speaking in solidarity with one voice. And one of the reasons that we’ve spent so much time the first year of this administration trying to reinvest in and reinvigorate our alliances and partnerships is precisely so, on these big issues, the rest of the world hears us speaking and acting as one. And I think the last week – we had these meetings at NATO, at the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe, the European Union, and others – if you were a Russian participating in those meetings or listening in on them, you would have been struck by the unity of voice, what was coming from all of our allies and partners. That doesn’t just happen. It’s the product of a lot of work, it’s the product of building trust, confidence among us. And we spent a lot of time and effort doing just that. So the more the – the more that’s happening, I think the more the prospect that we will help carry the day.
And ultimately – and it’s – this is a big part of the challenge too – it is about trust. It’s about trying to build that trust so that when your voice is heard people not only listen to it but they believe it. And that goes to much more fundamental problems about governance that we feel not only internationally, outside our country, but in our country as well.
QUESTION: So (inaudible) forgive me if my lights go out again; it’s not a cyber attack. I’m sitting alone in a studio and the lights are motion based, and sometimes they just turn off on me, and it’s pitch black, which is really fun. So —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Tommy, you need to just keep moving. Wave your arms.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) jumping jacks.
Look, Ben and I are obsessed with this global competition that you’re talking about between democracies and autocracies around the world. I know you’re on team democracy and that you spend a lot of time talking about why the democratic system, why democratic values are better than the alternative. But as you alluded to, our democracy has been a bit of a mess lately from January 6th, the ongoing election lies. Are there times when you’re abroad, talking with some foreign diplomat, where they say to you, like, “Hey, Tony, is your shit together over there? Like, is this thing going to work out?” Are there times you’ve heard Russia and the Chinese diplomats, some other try to undercut the U.S. system by pointing at what’s going on in some of the darker recesses of our political discourse?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Absolutely. Certainly our adversaries, our opponents are very happy to point fingers at that, to try and poke at it. And indeed, they may be helping to foment it themselves, going back to what we were just talking about, with misinformation, with disinformation, with trying by various means to play on the fissures that exist in our own society. Friends, partners, allies – yeah, they might reference it more obliquely.
But here’s the interesting thing: It’s both a challenge but there’s also I think some opportunity in it, because when we’re asking other countries to do what may be for them hard things, politically challenging things, particularly when it comes to really strengthening their own democracies and creating the space necessary in democracies for all sorts of different groups and people to have their voice heard, to have their say – in a funny way, our own travails can be a source of strength as well as potentially as a weakness.
And I mean it this way: One of the things that still sets us apart from virtually every other country is not only our ability but our willingness and determination to confront our own challenges, our own problems openly, transparently, not trying to sweep them under the rug, not trying to pretend they don’t exist, as is the case in so many other parts of the world.
And so we’re grappling with challenges right now, but we’re doing it in an open and transparent way. And the rest of the world can see that, and it’s something that I can talk about as proof positive that when we have problems that we have to confront, well, at least we’re doing it openly. And you might be inspired by that to do the same thing. So in some ways, they can be helpful.
But look, the bottom line is this: I think when it comes to the challenge of our time, certainly one of the challenges of our time, the faceoff between democracies and autocracies, it’s pretty simple on one level. We simply have to demonstrate as democracies that we can deliver in meaningful ways for what our people want. Because the argument that you hear – and you guys talk about this all the time – the argument that you hear from the autocrats is, “You know what? Democracy just isn’t fit for purpose for these times. It’s paralyzed; it’s polarized; it moves too slowly. And the great benefit of an autocracy is it can move quickly, it can dedicate resources to whatever place it chooses without having to go through some kind of convoluted democratic process.”
Well, we have to prove that wrong. We have to demonstrate that when it comes to what really matters in people’s lives, what they want, what they need, what they aspire to, we can respond to it, and we can do it effectively. And that requires us, I think, to do that internally in our own governance, in our own politics. But from my perspective in the job that I’m in, it’s also more necessary than it’s ever been to do that collectively, to do that together, and here’s why.
Look, there are lots of clichés that the three of us know very well from having worked in and out of government for a long time. But clichés usually have a kernel of truth to them, and one of them is that we simply can’t deal with most of the challenges that really affect our people’s lives alone; that the United States, for all its power, simply can’t get effective results if it’s doing it alone.
So when you think about it, just to state the obvious, the three big things – I think – that are having more of an impact on people’s lives than just about anything: COVID, climate, new technologies that are disrupting the way we do things. We can’t simply deal with those effectively on our own.
Climate – we’re 15 percent of global emissions. Even if we did everything right at home, we’ve got to deal with the other 85 percent.
COVID – to state the obvious, and we’ve been living through this once again with Omicron and the variants, even if we managed to do everything right at home, if there are still variants circulating elsewhere, they’re going to come back and bite us. We have a – the need, the obligation, the responsibility to work with other countries to make sure that we’re beating the virus everywhere.
And on emerging tech, that’s so both potentially powerfully positive but also incredibly disruptive, a lot of the rules, the norms, the marketplaces for all of these things are global. They’re not simply our own. So if we can’t figure out a way to come together with other countries to write the rules and to shape the norms the way the technology’s actually used, it may be used in ways that we don’t like, no matter what we do at home.
And all of this starts with trying to build the strongest possible collection of countries that basically have the same perspective as we do, the world’s other democracies. When we have that solid foundation, that solid core, there’s a lot more that we can get done in the world than just the United States doing it alone. That’s kind of been the foundation we’ve been trying to set over this first year.
QUESTION: I – on the tech piece, Tony – and this connects to the idea of getting our house in order at home, and dealing with things abroad – I know you’re bullish on I think what is really an important initiative, this U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council, which I think a lot of people looked at and saw as, okay, this is good; this is the U.S. and Europe kind of sitting down and figuring things out amongst themselves, in part because we’re going to be dealing with China on everything from supply chains to data privacy and security to everything else.
I guess the question I had, though, was that we, I’m sure, wanted to talk, and there are all these working groups dedicated to standards and supply chain security, et cetera, but at the same time we’re coming to those meetings – I know from talking to Europeans – where there are a lot of concerns about U.S. technology platforms. Facebook is not exactly contributing to the health of democracy around the world. There’s a lot of concerns in Europe around privacy on data.
When you enter into a multilateral effort like that, where on the one hand you want the eye to be focused on how is the Chinese Communist Party potentially undermining the safe and democratic uses of technology, how much are you also getting an earful about U.S. technology platforms? And what can we really do to have a kind of healthier tech ecosystem, absent some agreed-upon norms that may impact our technology platforms as well as preparing to deal with a growing Chinese tech sector?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah, Ben, you’re – look, you’re exactly right. And it’s both. We get, obviously, trade frictions with Europe – some big ones that we’ve actually worked through over this past year, including a longstanding issue of subsidies for the big aircraft manufacturers, as well as tariffs and so forth. But especially in the tech area too, we have some differences, differences of approach. And we have to work through those, and we are.
At the same time, there is so much more in the perspective that we bring to bear on these issues that unites us than divides us as compared to how autocracies want to regulate and rule technology.
And so what I’m finding in these meetings is that even as we’re working through some differences, we are seized increasingly with the notion that we have to be working together to try to do more to shape all of these norms and rules and standards, because if we don’t, then someone else will, and that someone else will almost certainly do it in a way that’s antithetical to the fundamental values that we share for democracy, for openness, for the free flow of information, for protecting people’s privacy, for protecting their human rights – to make sure that technology to the best of our ability can be used for good things, not as a tool of repression, surveillance, you name it.
So I’m finding in these conversations that sure, the frictions are there; the differences – some differences are there. We work on them. We work through them. We’ve made real progress. But increasingly, there is common cause in trying to make sure that we are the ones who are kind of setting the rules for the road for the next generation.
QUESTION: Tony, changing gears here, so you spoke – and really movingly – about your stepfather’s experience during the Holocaust where he survived being held in several Nazi concentration camps. There was this horrible incident over the weekend where a man took several people hostage at a synagogue. I’m not going to ask you to get into any of the specifics of that incident because I’m sure it’s an ongoing investigation, but unfortunately, threats against synagogues or Jewish communities are happening far too often both in the U.S. and abroad.
I was curious, like, what your reaction personally is to sort of seeing these horrible things happen and what role you think the U.S. can and should play in trying to stamp out anti-Semitism and prevent these kinds of hate crimes both in the U.S. and around the world.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I guess I’d start by saying that those of us who forget the past are condemned to re-tweet it.
There is profoundly, all jokes aside, a lot of history that we all know and share, and we know throughout history that anti-Semitism, acts of anti-Semitism, violence directed against Jews, are the canary in the coalmine. And usually, they augur not just bad things for Jews, but for many, many other groups until you wind up with a larger conflagration.
So in and of itself, we have to be incredibly vigilant about that, whether it’s in our own society or whether it’s in other places around the world. And we are. We’re making sure that here at home, communities, synagogues have some of the tools that they need to protect themselves, even as we’re trying to deal with the larger underlying issues. And around the world, we’re incredibly vigilant about the re-emergence of anti-Semitism or, for that matter, whether it’s Islamophobia, other kinds of prejudice and violent acts directed against one group or another.
But as I say, it almost always in our history has started with anti-Semitism and with acts against Jews. It’s something that we’re focused on not just ourselves, but increasingly with different groups of likeminded countries who are experiencing the same things and, because of their own history, are incredibly attuned to this.
But then we all have challenges in our respective politics where sometimes these issues are used for ill, and that’s something that we have to be on guard on as well.
QUESTION: I was – we’re going to wrap with a few quick kind of lightning round personal questions, and bridging from that very serious topic to the personal. I’m just wondering, what do your kids think you do, Tony? (Laughter.) They – they’re pretty small. You’re gone a lot. Do they have any idea you’re – what you do? Like, what do you tell them?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So they’re – so —
QUESTION: Daddy does FaceTime for a living, yeah.
QUESTION: What do you tell them? What do they actually think you do?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So my kids are almost three and almost two. My son’s almost three. My daughter’s almost two. They know I go to work, whatever that is. They know I go to the State Department, whatever that is, because when I —
QUESTION: Well, that’s —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: — so that’s – but look, here’s the honest and really hard truth that I have to confront: Every once in a while, I’m on TV and my wife, your – our mutual – your mutual friend Evan Ryan will say to my kids, “Oh look, Daddy’s on TV,” and almost every time the response is, “I want Elmo, where’s Sesame Street?” (Laughter.) So I do not hold a candle to any of our fuzzy and furry friends on Sesame Street.
QUESTION: I imagine that your kids would be like, “Daddy leverages soft power around the world to advance U.S. interests.” So you’re —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Listen, here’s my other challenge, is my son is particularly good training for doing diplomacy around the world, because I ask him to do something and he says no. (Laughter.) Where do you go from there?
QUESTION: Yeah, you got to get creative.
Tony, you’re a musician, a guitar player, you play in a band, you – I have deep sources within the State Department that tell me that you curate your Spotify playlist yourself even though you get accused of having someone do it for you. When are you going to pull together a musical summit, get some of your favorite bands, musicians, guitar player in the State Department? Or maybe you can take the show on the road. You do a world tour where you guys are just sort of rocking out for democracy or something. We can workshop that. That was terrible.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I’ve got to say, Tommy, that could really be the final sign that we’re heading for Armageddon – (laughter) – because it would – I’m not sure that would do anyone any good. Yeah, I’ve been in a series of bands over the year – over the years. I like to say that one group of guys that I played with, we never play live, we just sort of go to a recording studio and try and put down some tracks, much like the second half of the Beatles’ career, where they stopped performing live and went into the studio.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: In their case, it was because, one, they couldn’t hear themselves over the screaming fans; two, the music was getting so much more sophisticated that they wanted to be in the studio. In our case, it’s because no one would actually come pay to hear us play live. (Laughter.) But nonetheless, that’s kind of where we are.
Look, for me, we all have sort of threads in our life, and the common thread for me really has been music, something to always, always fall back on. And also – you talked about the Spotify playlists – we’ve been doing those now in the countries that we’re visiting. It’s an incredible way to connect with people, because it does bring people together. It does cross cultures. It does cross differences. And so showing that respect and love for music from different parts of the world is a really good way of connecting.
But look, if I had had a chance to pursue a career as a musician, I would have done it. I realized at an early age there was only one thing missing: talent. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Are you George, Paul, Lennon, Ringo? Where do you stand in the Get Back continuum? Billy Preston?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: It’s a – yeah, it’s a continuum. I mean, there are times when you’re kind of a Paul person, times when you’re a John person, a George person, a Ringo person. I wouldn’t want to pick or choose.
QUESTION: Got it.
QUESTION: I’m going to throw one lightning one at you, which is you travel a lot. Best meal as Secretary of State and worst wake-up call as Secretary of State?
QUESTION: Here we go.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Okay, best meal as Secretary of State?
QUESTION: Yeah, and we’re going to say you can’t say anything French, because I know you don’t want to cause another AUKUS kind of incident here, so we’ll just rule out the French here.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, here’s the hard part too: Because of COVID and Omicron, when we’re traveling around the world, we’re generally actually not eating out these days.
QUESTION: That’s brutal. That’s brutal.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So it’s really – it’s – now, I will tell you – and I know this is really dangerous because if I say one thing, pick one place, pick one country – but nonetheless, I will say this: Last time I was on the job during the administration we were all part of, I think one of the greatest meals I’ve ever had was in Tokyo at the Tsukiji Fish Market, where there’s an incredible hole-in-the-wall sushi place which is just a countertop, but it was breakfast. And people line up at 5:00 in the morning to go to that counter and have breakfast there, and it’s beyond words, hard to describe.
QUESTION: That’s a good answer.
QUESTION: That’s a great answer.
All right, Tony, you are in a room with 100 of the most talented college seniors in the country. You have 60 seconds to pitch them on why they should join the State Department over the CIA, Wall Street, anything else. Go.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Because you can make a difference for your country; because you can do something and be part of something larger than yourself; because you can go to work every day, literally as well as figuratively, with an American flag behind your back; because when it comes to what we have been talking about, the things that are actually having an impact on your life, on your neighbors’ lives, on the lives of Americans, whether it’s climate or whether it’s COVID, whether it’s technology, whether it’s these confrontations among different powers, you can actually be in a job where you can do something about it, where you can make a difference.
And even if it’s only for a short time in your life, there are wonderful things to do in so many different ways, in so many different pursuits, but if you can spend a little piece of your time actually being part of something that is larger than yourself, working on behalf of your fellow Americans, trying to make sure that the world is just a little bit better for us and also for our kids – in my case, something I think about every day – then you’re not going to get any greater job satisfaction than that.
QUESTION: Ben, are you sold?
QUESTION: Yeah, I’m – I’ll sign up at some point.
QUESTION: Think you could pass the Foreign Service exam?
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah. That’s a whole other matter.
QUESTION: Let’s not go there, yeah.
QUESTION: I don’t know that I could do it right now. I’m not sure I could swing that thing.
Well, listen, Tony, I think we are over our allotted time and probably keeping you late from, like, high-level diplomatic meetings in Ukraine designed to prevent a war, so we should probably let you go. But thank you so much for doing the show, for talking with us, for being a friend for so many years, and all the great work you do. We really appreciate it.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Great to be with both of you. I’m a real longstanding friend of the pod, always will be, and my kids even have pod onesies, so we’re all in.
QUESTION: Yeah, that’s dedication, man. Yeah.
QUESTION: Indoctrinate them early.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Exactly.
QUESTION: Thank you, Tony.
QUESTION: Safe travels.
QUESTION: Safe travels.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: All right, guys. Thanks.