Social Good Summit

Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
92nd Street Y
New York City
September 27, 2015

Thank you very, very much.

It is great to be here, it’s great to be with all of you. And I came back to the State Department in January after about a 22-year hiatus. And a few things were different when I got back after 22 years. First, I found that I had windows in my office, which is a great triumph for any bureaucrat. [Laughter.] Second, there was sushi in the cafeteria. [Laughter.] Third, I found a Secretary of State who brings his Labrador to work every day. [Laughter.]

All of these were marked improvements—something I think folks in Silicon Valley figured out long before we did. [Laughter.]

But twenty years ago when I first started as a young staffer in the European Affairs office of the Department, it was an incredibly exciting time. The Cold War had just ended. Europe was reimaging itself in fundamental ways. There were new horizons of hope and possibility rapidly expanding around the world.

It was an exhilarating. But it was also incredibly challenging. The Balkans were coming apart at the seams, and it took American diplomacy, ultimately, and American leadership to bring peace.

But I think each of then believed that we had a chance to shape the world for the better.

Twenty-two years later, back at the State Department, I still feel that same jolt of energy and anticipation coming into work every single day. And I remain in awe of the capacity of our diplomats to advance our interests and translate our values into meaningful progress worldwide.

It has been said that the art of diplomacy is letting the other person have it your way. And on this score, I’d argue we’re not doing that badly.

Think just a little bit about American diplomatic leadership over the past 18 months.

We rallied coalitions around the globe to counter violent extremism, to take on ISIL, and to deal with Ebola. We helped competing Afghan blocs achieve first-ever peaceful transition of power in that country’s history. We hosted the first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. We enlisted China and other countries in effort to mitigate climate change. We reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba. We began to negotiate trade agreements to try to level the field for our own businesses and raise others to our own standards. And we reached a comprehensive agreement with Iran to prevent it from getting a nuclear weapon.

Now, it is easy to minimize achievements. It’s very easy to focus on failures. And, of course, we’re not without those. And there is many a work still-in-progress.

But I’d ask you to do a very brief thought experiment. Think about the movie It’s a Wonderful Life that we all usually watch just before Christmas. We all know what happened to Bedford Falls when George Bailey was out of the picture.

Well, if you take any of the examples I cited—and you take American leadership and American diplomacy out of the picture, as unfinished and as unsatisfying as some of these things are, they would look a lot worse without us.

So the power of diplomacy as a tremendous force for good hasn’t changed.

But there is something that has changed in those 22 years.

Today, you don’t have to work at the State Department or in the U.S. Government to change the world. You can do it from your own backyard, from your own living room.

We are fortunate to live in a world where—try as people might, try as governments might—you just can’t keep a good idea down.

They’re bursting from classrooms, tech labs, and start-ups. They’re rising from rural communities, from inner cities, even from refugee camps. They’re coming to life in the midst of conflict, crisis, even epidemics.

This time a year ago the eyes of the world were focused on West Africa. Ebola was sweeping from house to house with frightening ferocity. But folks worked around the clock and around the world to save lives—with courage but also with ingenuity. Brand new designs for treatment units; brand new drugs; brand new suits to protect health care workers; brand new data tools to access and assess progress in real-time. And now, these same people remain laser focused on the fight to the end, until there are zero cases.

As a global community—and everything you’ve been talking about today—we have big goals in the years ahead. Fighting climate change, ending extreme poverty, building sustainable cities, advancing human rights.

These goals affect each and every one of us, and they require solutions from each and every one of us.

But despite the tremendous creativity that we see is we still have work to do connecting our brightest problem-solvers to our greatest problems.

On travel, I get to meet with counterparts from foreign governments, ministers, and the like. But I also try to meet with business leaders, with students, with artists, with entrepreneurs.

And I want to hear about the obstacles that they’re facing in advancing their own societies. And I hear about them. Learning by rote recitation instead of through critical thinking. The barriers they experience getting to capital, starting businesses, scaling solutions. Limits on free expression, on free assembly, on a free press.

We need more pathways for our world’s brightest minds to make access and get access to policymaking at the highest levels—and for policy priorities to spark and accelerate new ideas.

We have to do a better job connecting those of us in government to the creative, innovative, entrepreneurial community that’s out there—finding solutions to the very problems we’re trying to work every day.

Leaders need to be able to see around the corner, around the innovation corner. The sharpest innovators need a better window into what we’re trying to do in government, into our top policy priorities.

In short, we need to build those bridges in the United States and around the world. And we’re starting to do that.

Bridges just like the U.S. Global Development Lab that the Agency for International Development began that brings together governments, business, universities, NGOs, foundations to help end huger, end child death, and dramatically expand access to clean energy.

Or bridges like the U.S.-China Climate Leaders Summit in Los Angeles, when mayors from ten Chinese cities came together with their American counterparts—teaming up with them to fight climate change.

You all know that we live in a world that is incredibly fluid and fraught with probably more complexity than at any time in our history. Power is shifting among states. It is also shifting below them and beyond them—requiring governments to work with and be accountable to non-state actors and individuals, from corporate leaders to student innovators to the mayors of megacities, whose decisions every day have an outsized impact of the lives of their citizens and the future of their countries.

But when you step back and really think about it, here’s what’s changed more than anything else. If you asked an academic or a historian, 50 or 100 years ago, what makes the wealth of a nation, the answer you’d get is, well, let’s look at the size of the country, its geographic mass, the number of people it has, the size of its army, its military, its natural resources.

And, of course, those things still matter. And here in America we are blessed to have an abundance of all of them.

But I think all of you know, better than anyone, that what really matters in the 21st century, what really makes the wealth of a nation is it human resource, and the ability of that resource to creative, to innovate, to think, to argue, and to even, if necessary, to fail.

That is the strength of nations. That is the wealth of nations.

And in government, our main obligation, I would submit, is to find ways to unleash it. And for our diplomats, it is to maximize the potential of our fellow citizens—to unleash their creativity and make room for them to argue, to invent, to challenge conventional wisdom.

So, at the State Department, one of the things we’re going to do in the weeks and months ahead is to start a series of conversations between diplomats and creative minds on cutting-edge questions, like how do we help cities in developing countries leapfrog ahead with cleaner, smarter technology?

How do we modernize our approach to arms control or cybersecurity to keep up with both emerging threats and new technologies?

How do we prepare for the revolution in robotics in our labor markets, in our economies, in our foreign policies?

How do we address advances in genetics—from gene manipulation to longevity—and the impact that they will have on societies?

And more broadly, how do we better connect our government and our innovators, so that efforts to make the world a little bit healthier, a little bit wealthier, a little bit wiser are empowered by America’s unique creativity?

Every day, these issues are discussed and debated in the Situation Room of the White House. It’s time to broaden the conversation.

There’s no need to wait. Start solving the problems now. We want to hear from you. We need your ideas. We need your energy. We need your passion. We need your answers. Diplomacy no longer belongs just to the diplomats. It belongs to you.

Thank you very much.