Remarks at the National Conference of the Association of Opinion Journalists

Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
Washington, DC
May 16, 2016

Thank you all. Good morning. It is great to be here with everyone. Thank you for starting this Monday together.

I actually have a dubious past as a speechwriter, and the truth is I now benefit in the position that I have from someone who works on speeches with me, Ariana Berengaut, who is an incredibly talented person. So usually anything that I now get to say is simply me repeating whatever she’s put down on paper, which is a role that I used to play in part for President Clinton as a speechwriter back in the ’90s.

One time we had come from a State of the Union Address that had gone very well that I had a small hand in. And actually, it was during the impeachment process, so there were – the stakes were pretty high and the State of the Union had gone terrifically well. We come back to the White House for a reception afterward, and I was standing there with Michael Waldman, who was his chief domestic policy speechwriter – I was doing the foreign policy piece at the time – and we were feeling pretty good about our contributions. And the President saw us, and he was with Jesse Jackson and he brings Jesse Jackson over to us and introduces us. And he looks at us and Jesse and says, “These are the guys who transcribed my speech.” Made you feel really good. So I wanted to give Ariana her due today.

I just looked at the list of the folks who are here and the incredible organizations and papers that you represent, and just the sweep of the country, from Miami to Detroit to Dallas and everywhere in between. I actually did spend a little bit of time myself working as a journalist. I cut my teeth on one of the probably roughest, toughest places you could imagine, which was my college newspaper. And I still have memories of that as being one of really the highlights of my career.

That said, my first assignment, which I still remember, was covering a men’s college volleyball game, and I had incredible objectivity when I go back and look at the reporting that I did, because I managed to call our opponents “totally out-classed” by our team. So I think I was already delving into opinion journalism – allegedly just covering sports. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I decided to go to law school. But I have great respect and admiration for the work that you’re in.

I briefly spent a little bit – over a year at the New Republic back in the mid-‘80s working on that. And again, I found that it was one of the greatest experiences that I’ve been able to have. So I really wanted to start off by just saying thank you.

We are acutely reminded, especially when you get to travel around the world, as I’m able to do in this job, of the indispensable role that opinion journalism in particular plays not just in our country but around the world, and particularly in places where it’s either not allowed or, in fact, violently repressed. And I get to see that pretty much every day traveling around. It is at the heart of a healthy, functioning society, and certainly at the heart of a society that hopes to make some progress. And this is a message that we try to carry when we travel around the world as well.

I just had the interesting experience of speaking at the National University in Vietnam. And for the first time, they actually carried a speech by a U.S. official live without censorship both on television and livestreaming, so a small sign of progress. Of course, much more significantly, the President will be going there in just a few weeks, and that will be an interesting moment to see and test the progress of freedom of speech in Vietnam.

But basically, the bottom line is this: Your voices, your curiosity, your skepticism really underwrite the public trust for all of us. And you hold us to account, which we don’t always express our appreciation for on a daily basis. But as citizens, as Americans who care about our country, deep down in our hearts, even if we don’t always say it, we deeply, deeply appreciate it. So I really wanted to be with you folks today just to say thank you for that.

I wanted to just try and spend a few minutes giving you a little bit of a window into our work and some of the principles that we hope will help govern it.

One of the things that I find frustrating, to be upfront about it, is this argument which pops up now and again that America is somehow in retreat. That we’re not leading. That we’ve abdicated our responsibility. And I’ve got to tell you, I could not disagree more.

I think that, when I look around, we are doing more in more places than we’ve ever done before. And when I look at the track record, despite—and I want to start out by acknowledging upfront there is a lot we could do better and more effectively, and there are plenty of things that we are rightly taken to task for—but I also think it’s true that when you look around the world over the last couple of years and step back and take a look at what American diplomacy has been able to achieve in moving the ball forward at least just a little bit, it’s a strong record.

It is American diplomacy that gathered more than 65 countries together in a coalition to combat Daesh, or ISIL, and American diplomacy that brought countries around the world together to beat back Ebola before it became even worse.

American diplomacy has actually helped to revitalize NATO and to penalize Russia for the actions that it’s taken in Ukraine.

American diplomacy, in ways that are not as visible as they should be, has revitalized our relationships across the Asia Pacific, the fastest-growing region in the world—strategically, economically, politically, and in many other ways.

American diplomacy has started to carry the relationship with India, one of the most important growing countries in the world, to a new place.

American diplomacy, in the person of the Secretary of State John Kerry, almost literally pulled an Afghan political transition off – the first peaceful democratic transition of power in that country’s history. Despite all of the challenges that remain, that’s what American diplomacy did.

American diplomacy brought virtually all of the leaders of Africa here to Washington for the first summit between the United States and Africa that really was a watershed event in bringing these countries together with us, among themselves, with the business community, and with NGOs.

American diplomacy re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba and forged an agreement with Iran that will make it very, very difficult for Iran to get a nuclear weapon far into the future.

And of course, in Paris, American diplomacy was in the lead in forging an agreement among 195 countries on climate change.

I could go on. The list continues. But what I’d like to do is engage in a thought experiment that will be familiar to a few of you—because every year right before Christmas, usually you can’t turn the TV channels without coming upon one of the classic movies of all time, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And when I think about it, we all know what happened to Bedford Falls, the town in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when the lead character, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, is taken out of the picture. We know what happens to the life in that town without him.

If you take America out of the picture of any of the issues that I just described and so much else that’s going on around the planet – if you take that leadership out, I can guarantee you the situations would be far, far worse.

So again, that doesn’t say that we’ve gotten all of this right. It doesn’t say we couldn’t do it better, more effectively. But it does say, at least in my judgment, that American leadership is vibrant and it is producing results.

We try to go about this with some basic principles in mind. There’s always the search for some kind of doctrine, the successor to Kennan and containment. And there isn’t something that fits neatly on a bumper sticker, at least not in my judgment.

But there are some principles that we try to ground our action in and come back to. And the first one is trying to lead with a sense of purpose, and that purpose actually has been pretty consistent across the life of American diplomacy for many, many decades. That purpose is to ensure the security of our people, its citizens, our allies and our partners; to promote a strong U.S. economy, and to advance our values at the same time; and in doing so, also shape an international order that works to bolster peace, security, and stability.

Second, we’ve been trying to lead from a position of strength, with unrivaled military might – and that continues – with a dynamic economy, and also with the unmatched strength of our human resources, and I’ll come back to that.

Third, we’ve been trying to lead as much by the power of our example as by the example of our power; that is, living our values at home. So we’ve been trying to lift our citizens here at home, grow our economy, and actually mean what we say in the way that we act at home.

Fourth, we’ve been trying to focus on leading with capable partners because it’s our belief that we can best advance our values and our interests around the world, in a world that’s so interconnected, when we’re actually getting others to try and row in the same direction with us and to make sure that they’re as effective as they can be in doing that. But even as we do that, I think we recognize that the United States and our leadership is often necessary to mobilize collective action.

Fifth, we’ve been trying to lead with all the instruments of our power – with the determined diplomacy that I’ve been talking about; with an ever-ready military; with our economic might. But also there’s something that’s really struck me more and more as I’ve gotten the chance to travel around the world, and that is the powerful attraction of American innovation, entrepreneurship, education, science, technology. These are incredibly powerful constants in America’s presence and leadership around the world. And even when our policies are disputed, these things are still powerfully attractive. And I have found that virtually every place I’ve gone, and that’s something we have to try to elevate.

Finally, we’re trying to lead with a sense of perspective that marries both confidence and humility to strength and wisdom. The hard fact is so many of the problems that we’re dealing with around the world are not actually about us in the first place, and we have to have a little bit of humility in thinking that we can wave a magic wand or flip a switch and solve them, especially because they’re not about us, but many of them affect us, so we have an obligation to try to engage and do something about it.

We’re in a strategic environment, in my experience in government over the last 23 years, that is more fluid and more fraught with complexity than at any time I can remember. We see power shifting among states. We see power shifting below and beyond states – these tectonic plates moving in very powerful ways almost every day. And all this, of course, is urged on by the extraordinary rapid pace of technological change, the growth of economic interdependence, the scale of global connectivity.

What that means is governments wind up having to be more accountable than they ever had to be before to sub-state and non-state actors, everything from the mayors of megacities to corporate giants to super-empowered groups and individuals. All of this has been in the works for some time, but I think it’s reached warp speed today.

All of this is linking us together in unprecedented ways. It’s incentivizing some new forms of cooperation we haven’t seen, but it’s also making clear increasingly shared vulnerabilities – the weakening of state authority, which we see around the world; the erosion of order; the emergence of ungoverned states and ungoverned spaces; the proliferation of weapons and technology; and the surfacing or resurfacing of old hatreds and animosities. As the order erodes, all of these things come up again to the surface. And all of this is happening in an international system.

When you think about it, the big challenge we have is actually trying to hang on to that system, to shape it, to adapt it to the challenges that we face, but to hang onto it. Because 70 years ago, after the end of World War II, the folks who were in these jobs, in all of our respective jobs, were thinking about what the world should look like after that war. And the United States at that point, of course, had emerged as the great global power, and we had some very basic decisions to make about how we would use that power. And I think looking back, one of the wisest things that happened is the decision that leaders made, that writers made, that thinkers made at the time that we would actually ground our power in a system of international norms and rules and institutions.

On one level that seemed counterintuitive, because we were binding ourselves to those norms and those rules and to work within those institutions, and that would seem to, in some sense, hold our power back and tie our hands behind our backs. We could have simply just run roughshod, using power that we’d accumulated, especially at a time when so many countries around the world were weak recovering from a devastating war. We didn’t do that.

But I think it was incredibly wise because what we saw was instead of having the usual phenomena of a rising power stoking fear and concern among everyone else so that they’d all band together to try to check its power, in fact, because of the way we went about and did things, we managed to get other countries working with us and moving in the same direction. And for sure, there were many mistakes made along the way. But in terms of the big picture that is preventing the reemergence of war among great powers and creating some space in which countries could grow and emerge, I think we largely got the big picture.

But now that entire system is under challenge and under threat from some of the forces that I just described. It’s also under challenge and threat from some large countries – some emerging, some already on the scene – that decide which rules they like and which they decide to ignore.

So we’re trying to adapt this order to reflect new realities, to reflect the fact that so many of the challenges we’re facing couldn’t be imagined by the folks who shaped the order 70 years ago: rising seas, protracted conflicts, violent extremists. But also to take into account that a number of countries at the time are now – were not then what they are now – China, India, to name just a couple – and to account for all of that and to account for so many of these new issues that couldn’t be predicted. All of this time we’ve spent thinking about how to act in cyberspace was something that, of course, wasn’t on the radar for most people back in 1945, 1946.

So just to finish with a couple of thoughts about some of the places where we’re working on this. One is something I mentioned a little while ago – that’s the Asia rebalance. And much has been remarked upon, but one of the things that I’ve spent a lot of my time in this job on is Asia, on the instructions of the President and Secretary Kerry. We have in the Asia Pacific region, four of the top 10 trading partners of the United States, five of our seven treaty alliances, the world’s largest and fastest growing economies – in fact, by the next decade, two-thirds of the world’s middle class will be in the Asia-Pacific region.

So we have a profound stake in trying to be connected. And indeed, speaking of connected, you have some of the most wired people in the world in some of the youngest countries in the world. We recognize that this region would go a long way toward determining the course of the world, but the question is: by which rules? By whose standards?

That’s why we’ve spent a lot of time trying to strengthen our alliances with our treaty allies – with Japan, with Korea, with Australia, the Philippines and others. Why we have tried to deepen relations with the emerging powers of the region, whether it’s China on the one hand or Vietnam on the other. Promoting trade and investment, with TPP, but also free trade agreements with South Korea. Modernizing regulatory regimes with Burma, which has emerged now in a more democratic direction. Enhancing our military posture. We will have 60 percent of our Navy in the Asia Pacific by 2020, including some of our most advanced technology. And of course, working to advance democratic reforms – in Burma, which had historic elections, and in Vietnam, which is moving in a more positive direction. And then trying to bring all of this together, creating networks on a trilateral basis, a multilateral basis. All of this is knitting new ties and strengthening our place for the long term in the region.

The trade piece of this, TPP, which I know a lot of you have had a chance to look at, we see it here from a strategic perspective as much as from the economic one. And you can debate the merits of it economically – I think there’s a good case, but I’ll leave that aside for today – but when you think about the strategic question, when we look at it, our sense is that trade is going to happen one way or the other. It’s the old legend of King Canute trying to hold back the rising tide applies here. So the trade is going to happen. The real question is: Who gets to shape it? Who gets to write the rules of how that trade happens?

And I can tell you if it’s not us, it’s going to be someone else and that someone else is probably China. And I can tell you that if it is China and not us, the rules and standards to which trade is written are not going to be to our liking when it comes to the rights of workers, when it comes to the environment, when it comes to intellectual property, when it comes to transparency. That doesn’t mean that the agreements that we’ve forged are by any means perfect along any of those fronts, but given the alternatives and given what is possible when you’re negotiating with multiple countries at the same time, there is no doubt in my mind that we are creating a race to the top, not a race to the bottom, and that would be the case if we were not the ones doing the shaping. That’s what’s at stake strategically. And it’s interesting: it’s having a galvanizing effect.

By coincidence, I was in the region when the TPP was concluded. The day that it was actually signed I was in Japan, and my counterparts there were incredibly excited because Japan had been one of the leading countries in bringing this agreement to fruition, and so they saw it as a vindication of the leadership of Prime Minister Abe, which I think it was. The next day I was in South Korea. South Korea is not one of the original members of the TPP, but there, every single question I got from counterparts in government, journalists, others that I met with, was: “When can we get in on this? When can we join?” And maybe most interesting of all, the day after that, Beijing. And the Chinese have been against this from the start; they’re not in it. They’ve done a 90-degree turn. And even the party newspapers were writing, “oh, there are benefits to this; this is something we should really look at.” They fear being left behind. So this has potentially a real galvanizing effect in pulling countries into a system that is up to our standards, not down to some other standards.

Last thing I want to mention today – it’s also something that’s profoundly affecting the international environment that we’re operating in. That is the global refugee and migration crisis. Now, a lot of the focus is rightly on Syria, and everything that’s coming from Syria and Iraq and the effect that it’s having primarily on Europe. But it’s important to take stock of the fact that this is a crisis of global proportions. It’s not just Syria. This is the single largest wave of human displacement we’ve seen since World War II. If you took all of the displaced persons in the world and put them together in one country, it would be the 24th-largest country on the planet – bigger than South Korea, bigger than Spain. That’s the magnitude of the problem.

And so yes, it’s Syria, it’s Iraq; but it’s Afghanistan, it’s Pakistan, it’s Bangladesh. Many people from those countries are going to Europe. Here in the United States, we have children risking everything to come from Central America up to the United States. We have half a dozen African countries – more – that have profound migration challenges and displaced person challenges.

I just came back from Nigeria, where there about 2.2 million displaced persons in northeastern Nigeria. This is a country, parenthetically, whose population is going to double over the next 20 years, surpassing that of the United States. If it is going to somehow manage all of these people, it would have to have economic growth rates of 11 percent, which is beyond what’s reasonable or imaginable. So there’s a huge challenge in Nigeria over the next 20 years.

All of this – this migration challenge, the refugee challenge – is changing labor markets, it’s overwhelming infrastructure, it’s putting pressure on national borders, it’s affecting our sense of security, and in some ways it’s remaking our communities.

But more than anything, I think it’s challenging us to live up to our common humanity, to provide the same sanctuary that some of our own parents and grandparents sought in times of trouble, even as we recognize the imperative of security, the challenges of integration, and the burdens on host communities, including some of our own.

In Syria – just to focus and conclude with that – there are a few things that we’re trying to do. And I like to think about it in terms of concentric circles, and the most innermost circle is Syria itself. Of course, the single most effective thing we can do is to end the civil war in Syria. And that is something that Secretary Kerry’s spending eight days a week trying to do; and even as we do that, trying to advance this cessation of hostilities, and also humanitarian assistance flowing more freely throughout the country. Because if you do that, you take away the initial driver of migration that’s pushing people out of Syria – the violence and the lack of access to any kind of basic humanitarian needs. And so all of that, as fraught and challenging as it is, we’ve made some progress over the last couple of months.

Second, the next circle, is made of these countries of first asylum – that is, the places the refugees go to first when they leave Syria – Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan. And to put it in our terms, just think about this for a second – as I know many of you have – Lebanon right now, something like a third of the population is a Syrian refugee. There are more Syrians in public schools in Lebanon than there are Lebanese. To put it in our terms, the number of people they’ve taken proportional to their population – it’s as if over the last few years we had taken in 70 to 80 million people. So the disputes and fights we’re having over raising the ceiling for Syrian refugees here to 10,000 – that’s the scale. And similarly, Turkey and Jordan. And yet none of these states have broken, as challenged as they are.

Refugees get to these places, and yet so many of them still move on to Europe, putting themselves and their lives in jeopardy with smugglers, with traffickers, boats across stormy seas, losing their lives. Why do they do that? The violence driver has gone away. That’s the good news. The bad news is their kids often can’t go to school and the parents can’t work.

I was visiting with some refugees in Lebanon nine months ago at one of these amazing community centers – this was run by Caritas, doing incredible work. And the – they were providing counseling and services to the refugee population. The men were in one room, and you visit with them, and the one word that really sort of struck me in thinking how would I describe this is depressed. They were just depressed. And the reason they were depressed is their sense of dignity had been taken away from them, because they couldn’t provide for their families. And you could feel it. It was palpable in the room.

Then you move to the room with the women, the mothers. And there was this incredible energy, but it was frenetic and frantic, and it was all about, “How am I going to be able to provide for my kid?” That’s what was driving them. You could feel that, too.

And then finally, you got to the kids themselves, and that was the one thing that was really uplifting, because they were still kids and they hadn’t lost their sense of hope and optimism. So we’re working hard to try to create more access to schools, more access to work in these places. And we’ve done a tremendous amount in terms literally of building classrooms, renovating schools, working on governments to change their policies to allow more work permits and to allow more kids in school.

Finally, the biggest concentric circle is the international system itself. And the hard reality is it’s simply not keeping pace. You can’t keep pace with this crisis. Virtually all of the humanitarian appeals, including those dedicated specifically to refugees and migrants, are vastly, vastly underfunded – 30, 40, 50 percent of what’s required. Right now, as I mentioned, in Nigeria, where there are 2.2 million IDPs, the UN official responsible told me he just got back from touring the area and said it’s the worst humanitarian situation he’s seen anywhere, and that’s saying something. The relatively paltry amount of money that the UN is looking for to help provide relief for these folks is funded at 15 percent of what they need, which is about $240 million.

So we have to do something to revitalize the system and to get some more resources. And part of it’s going to non-traditional donors, countries like China that can afford it but haven’t been very generous. All of this is going to come to a head at the summit that President Obama’s convening on the margins of the UN General Assembly in September on the refugee crisis.

It’s not a talk-a-thon; it’s not designed to just talk this problem to death. There are concrete deliverables that people have to come to the table with if they want to participate in the summit. More money into the international system for dealing with humanitarian crises. We’re looking to get 30 percent more from – globally than we had a year ago.

Second, more commitments from countries on resettlement. And this resettlement can take different forms. It doesn’t necessarily have to be formal resettlement; you can bring people into countries on educational scholarships, family reunification, other means short of formal resettlement. And that includes the United States. We have to do our part.

Third and finally, greater access to jobs, greater access to schools. We want to raise the numbers globally by a million in each area. So it’s very concrete.

And that leads me to the very last point, which is the final circle: all of us. We need some voices of conscience in this. We need to try to take a stand together in our own communities against some of the hateful rhetoric that’s conflating rhetoric of refugees with terrorists and violent extremists, and it’s demonizing those who are actually fleeing violent extremists and terrorists. I think probably, going around this table, I suspect that many of us have parents, grandparents, great-grandparents who came to this country and in many cases were fleeing something, or at least certainly looking for a better life. So thankfully, our country was remarkably open to them. I hope we continue that even as we focus on the imperative that government has, which is to protect all our citizens, to make sure this is done as securely as possible.

When I was in Jordan a few months ago, I met a group of young Syrian refugees. These were 16- and 17-year-olds at a community center that run by UNICEF. What was remarkable was these kids all actually had a vision for their future, despite their circumstance. There was one young woman who wanted to be a doctor, another who wanted to be a fashion designer, a young man who wanted to be in business—I thought they had a sense of what they wanted to do and were determined to try and do it.

We got to talking, and one of the things I asked them was, did they have access to computers? And they said, for the most part, yes. Some of them had access to a computer at the community center. Others, interestingly, said that despite the circumstances of their families, who had virtually nothing, there was usually at least one smartphone in the family. And so they had access.

I had my iPhone with me, and I pulled it out, and I asked them, “Do you know what this is?” And they said, “Oh, yeah, sure. That’s an iPhone.” And I asked them, “Do you know who makes this?” And they said, “Oh, yeah. Apple.” Then I asked, “Do you know who founded Apple, who started this company that makes this great product?” Silence, then, “Oh yeah, Steve Jobs.” That’s right. I said, “And do you know where Steve Jobs’ father came from?” And there was silence. “He came from Syria.”

So every kid in that room could be the next Steve Jobs, and our job, I profoundly believe, is to at least give them the chance to do that. Thank you.