Remarks at RAND Politics Aside Conference

Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
Santa Monica, CA
November 12, 2016

So, how was your week?

It is truly wonderful to be here in California. It is great to see so many friends, colleagues, policymakers, innovators gathered together to talk shop on a Saturday morning at the beach.

Malcolm [Gladwell], thank you very much for your introduction and, most importantly, your work as a writer and a journalist, which has opened our minds to the world around us. And really, I can think of no one better to help us make some sense of recent events than a Canadian.

I’m also grateful to RAND for your leadership and optimism in naming this conference “Politics Aside.” Good try. Seriously, I’m deeply appreciative of your determination not to let us rest—to not even let a weekend go by—before turning our attention back to the tough policy questions we face as a nation… a ledger that never seems to get any shorter.

Now, one of the great advantages, even luxuries, of the job I have is the non-partisan character of our diplomatic mission and our diplomatic corps. I get to stay out of politics, or at least try.

But the national expressions we witnessed this past week are not just political. They are not merely the stirrings of an election year. They reflect a profound debate underway in our nation and abroad about the direction of our foreign policy—and indeed, about the very nature of our societies themselves.

This division does not fall strictly or neatly along established lines. It doesn’t necessarily pit left against right, Democratic against Republican, liberal against conservative, or even urban against rural.

Rather, the fault line that I think we’ve seen emerge is between those who—when confronted with global change—react by turning inward for entirely understandable reasons, and those who want to harness it to our aims by continuing to face outward. Between—to be blunt, but not pejorative—those who would erect walls and those who would build bridges.

In the United States, this debate has been prevalent in our discourse, in our elections—and manifestly—in the results. The pace of global change has exposed new shared vulnerabilities and led some of our fellow citizens to question the merits of being open to the world. They worry refugees pose a threat to their physical safety and immigrants to our identity, that free trade agreements are benefiting everyone except for them, that policies and investments are being made without them in mind. They have seen real wages stagnate; factory jobs disappear. What value can there be in a system that they feel has left them out and left them behind?

In Europe, slow economic growth, changing demographics, and the challenges of community integration have polarized politics, fueled extremist parties, and led some to debate the utility of the great European project. In June, these forces of change found expression in the vote of the British people to leave the EU—very much a bellwether of events to follow.

But this argument—that we’re better off pulling up the drawbridge—is both totally understandable and, I continue to believe, fundamentally flawed.

It underestimates the risks of turning inward while overstating the costs and downplaying the benefits of facing outward. It is ultimately harmful to the health, strength, security, and prosperity of our nations. Because if we step back from the world, our citizens—all of our citizens—would be worse off.

Our companies would make less money—after all, more than 90 percent of the global market is beyond our shores—and our citizens would have fewer jobs, absent our leadership to promote a global business environment favorable to our brands, our products, and our high standards.

Our soldiers would be dragged into more costly, unintended wars absent our leadership to build alliances that share the burdens, however imperfectly, of security and increase the capacity of others to prevent small crises from turning into big ones.

And our citizens would be left unacceptably vulnerable absent international cooperation, through the multilateral system, imperfect as it is, to help spot and stop threats before they reach our shores.

Looking ahead, the number and complexity of issues that are beyond the capacity of any one individual, any one community, any one country to solve alone—that list is growing.

Our national interests demand our global engagement, and our global engagement has profoundly advanced our national interests.

More than 70 years in the making, our international order of institutions, rules, and norms has helped create stability and space needed for countries to prosper and humans to innovate.

Virtually every advantage we enjoy in our societies draws a direct line to this international order—from the goods we buy that flow freely across borders, to public health systems we rely on to stop outbreaks from becoming epidemics, to environmental safeguards we are counting on to preserve the planet, to the high standards of rule of law and accountability that help our ideas blossom into businesses.

We know that the resulting progress has lifted billions of people out of poverty, extended the mantle of democracy to more people than ever before, created new middle classes and new consumers from the Americans to Africa to Asia.

Here in the United States, the poverty rate has fallen by the largest percentage in nearly 50 years. The gender pay gap has narrowed to a record low. Middle class and poor Americans have enjoyed the largest increase in median household income in nearly five decades, broadly shared in both urban and yes, rural communities.

Overall – overall, when you step back and look at the big picture, people are healthier, wealthier, better educated, and more tolerant than at any time in human history. As President Obama has said, if you had to choose any moment in history in which to be born, not knowing where, not knowing what your race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation would be, you would choose today.

And so this is a moment of profound paradox—because for all this progress, the momentum in our political discourse is with those argue that it is time for nations to come home—or to go it alone. To pull up the drawbridge.

This divide has its roots in visible and legitimate concerns that have been well documented of late. We live in a world more fluid and fraught with complexity than ever before. Power is shifting among, below, and beyond nation-states—requiring governments to be more accountable to sub-state and non-state actors, from the mayors of mega-cities to corporate chieftains to super-empowered groups and individuals. Governing, cooperating, and exercising geo-political influence is becoming more difficult because there are so many more actors who can veto outcomes—unless they can be convinced to become problem-solvers.

In the context of difficult economic conditions, fiscal limits, and disruptive technologies, it’s harder for states and international organizations to get things done and perform in ways people expect, fueling a crisis of confidence in our institutions.

Protracted conflicts from Syria to Afghanistan to South Sudan have stubbornly resisted the world’s attempts at resolution, stretching our response capacities to the near breaking point and precipitating a global refugee crisis, the largest wave of human displacement since World War II. These refugees are joined by millions more people on the move to escape poverty or crime, who find themselves in danger and in need of assistance and protection.

We know this great migration is fundamentally remaking the world we live in. It’s challenging our labor markets. It’s putting pressure on local infrastructure and national borders. It’s changing the makeup of our communities. It’s affecting our sense of security. It’s calling into question our humanity.

Here in the United States, communities are still recovering from two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the financial crisis, the consequences of which fell disproportionately on low and middle-income families and deepened the gulf between those who make decisions and those who shoulder their steepest cost.

The benefits of globalization have been undeniable. But for a significant share of the population, so have been the downsides.

American firms that export pay their workers up to 18% more than those that serve only the domestic market, and half of American exports go to countries with which we have free trade agreements. But as trade soared, labor-intensive industries like textile and furniture-making lost jobs and production to low-wage foreign competition, while less labor-intensive pursuits like design, programming, finance, and services boomed. The gap between the rich and poor widened. Our manufacturing sector is probably the most efficient in the world, but the simple truth is that it doesn’t employ as many people as it used to.

Globalization, migration, these are pieces of this puzzle, but they are not the whole story. The rapid pace of technological change, the advance of automation, and the scale of global connectivity have each played a significant role.

From the moment that Ben Franklin first chased a thunderstorm with a kite, a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship has been the birthright of every American and the wellspring of our national strength and renewal.

Because of this, we tend to think about innovation as being above and beyond politics, but the truth is innovation is inherently political. There are winners and there are losers.

On Thursday, I was at a class at Stanford in the Environment and Energy Building. Inscribed on the wall outside of the classroom were the words, “Innovation doesn’t discriminate.” It is a generous thought, but innovation is neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad. Like every creation of humanity, it influenced by the beliefs, the biases, the aspirations of humankind.

The automation and robot revolution have driven record efficiency and sharpened the U.S. economy’s leading edge, but that revolution has also closed factories, suppressed wages, alienated low-skilled individuals, and seeded a backlash against trade that I believe is profoundly detrimental to our own economic and strategic interests. And this is even before our economies, our labor markets begin to really absorb the disruption of trucks that drive themselves or personal care robots that look after us.

The information revolution brought more information to more people in more places in real time. But that same flow—its abundance, and sometimes, I think all of us feel, overabundance—also fuels greater polarization and amplifies a sense of chaos and confusion.

I first started working in government in the early 1990’s, and back then at the White House, everyone did two things that they really don’t do anymore. At around 6:30 p.m. in the evening, everyone stopped what they were doing and turned on the national network news on CBS, ABC, or NBC.

And then in the morning, we all opened our front doors and picked up a hard copy of The New York Times or The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal.

We operated from a more-or-less shared, accepted fact base, defined by trusted curators.

Now, of course, we’re hooked up to an intravenous feed of un-validated information and locked in an infinite echo chamber that tends to reinforce our own beliefs and crowd out, not bring in, different perspectives.

In this Wild Wild West of Information Flow, mistruths rapidly gain legitimacy and bot-let disinformation operations escape exposure—undermining trust in civic institutions. And this is even before artificial intelligence-powered communication tools are widely introduced into the fray—a development that’s just around the corner.

The social media revolution connected billions on the planet and helped far-flung communities find common ground. It has also became the choice tool for trolls to bully, violent extremists to recruit, and adversaries to erode democratic dialogue.

Taken together, these unintended consequences have created almost a perfect storm of discomfort, discontent, self-doubt, indeed even the utter rejection of the global system that has helped produce unprecedented progress in the first place.

Today’s debate is evidence enough that those of us who believe in open societies have a lot of work to do in order to make our case real and relevant to the lives of our fellow citizens and responsive to their legitimate concerns.

After all, it is not truly progress if too many of our fellow citizens are left out or feel left out. It is not truly progress if too many of our fellow citizens are left behind or feel left behind.

This is not and cannot be the task of government alone. Those of us, all of us, who share in the benefits also share in this responsibility. Together, we have to do a better job capitalizing on the opportunities, mitigate the risks, and ensuring that the benefits of vast and exciting transformations are more broadly enjoyed.

As policymakers, at least for the next seventy-three days, this means we have to do a better job listening to and responding to the legitimate concerns of all our citizens. As President Obama said, this is on our balance sheet.

It does not mean retreating behind walls, succumbing to policies of fear and division, or unwinding the wheels of progress—even if such a thing were possible.

We have to invest in people, our human resources—in their skills, their education—and strengthen the safety net that protects them from hardship and cushions their risks. We have to work harder to shrink the gap between the rich and poor—a gap not only in income, but in access to quality education, to job-training, to health care, to technology.

This has been the focus of this administration in so many ways, a strategy that helped lead the United States out of the depths of the greatest financial crisis of our time. But I think the President would be among the first to say that our work is still far from done.

If we were gathered as this conference fifty or a hundred years ago, and we were talking together about what constitutes the wealth of a nation, we would probably be talking about things like the expanse of its land mass, the size of its population, the power of its military, the abundance of its natural resources.

And, of course, all those things still matter. And thankfully the United States continues to be blessed with all of them.

But I think we know now, here in the early years of the 21st century, that the true wealth of a nation is defined by its human resources and by the ability of a country to maximize their potential, to allow all our citizens to build, to create, to excel.

No one knows this better than the technology community—but in our shared excitement we did not sufficiently prepare for the moment when creative disruption also leads to destruction.

This challenge has to be met head-on.

We have siloed our communities with social media so that we are talking past one another—or not really talking at all. Let’s put our minds to reconnecting those communities by starting a national conversation—or conversations—between identity groups.

We contributed to decimating manufacturing communities with automation. Let’s put our talents to rebuilding them by finding new pursuits and protections for our workers and new ways to boost growth, employment, and resilience.

We lowered the barriers to vast quantities of information. Let’s think about ways to raise the bar for quality of information.

A new lab at Stanford is described as turning Silicon Valley “against itself”—developing technology-based solutions to problems that are, in part, technology-driven.

Of course, many are already ahead of this curve—building social impact directly into their bottom lines. They’re using drones to deliver medical supplies to inaccessible communities. They’re mining cell phone data to give credit scores to low-income borrowers without credit histories. They’re training refugees as coders—providing the referral and connective services that new arrivals need to break into our increasingly insular networks. These ventures and so many others may not turn a profit overnight. Their margins might be slimmer. They may not have mass appeal. But they are putting down the roots that we need in order to stitch our societies back together.

We also need to do a better job bridging the divide between policy and practice, technologists and policymakers, computer and human.

Over the last eight years at the White House and at State, I have been struck again and again by how some of our toughest and most urgent priorities reside squarely at this intersection of foreign policy and technology.

But here is part of the problem: so many of us in government who are grappling with these challenges are not necessarily technical experts, and don’t know the right questions to ask—let alone the possible universe of answers. Overtime, I’ve realized that we need scientists and technologists in the Situation Room just to tell us whether we need scientists and technologists in the Situation Room.

President Obama has made it his mission to empower the ingenuity and passion of the American people through greater investments in science, technology, engineering, and math. In doing so, he inspired a new generation of techies to serve in government through the U.S. Digital Service, the President Innovation Fellows program, the Global Development Lab. All bringing into government technologists, innovators, and scientists.

Just two years old, the Digital Service, for example, has streamlined the online enrollment for veterans’ benefits, called on hackers to find bugs in public Defense Department websites, and created a digital stamp that sped up refugee processing without sacrificing any rigor in security. There simply is no substitute for bringing Silicon Valley’s lightning-bolt ingenuity and results-based efficiency into government, and it is absolutely essential that these partnerships continue to grow. There is too much at stake for either community to back off now.

For our own part, at the State Department, we put together something called the Innovation Forum to deepen our understanding of transformational technology trends that will impact foreign policy. The Forum enables policymakers to more clearly see around the innovation corner, while providing some of our smartest minds with a way to inform foreign policy at the highest levels.

In one year, we opened the State Department’s first office in Silicon Valley, convened conversations on fintech, gene editing, and artificial intelligence, hosted three all-day workshops on refugee education, nuclear proliferation, and clean energy, and launched a full-credit course at Stanford University called Hacking for Diplomacy, where teams of computer science and business undergrads set their minds to work on some of our Department’s toughest challenges—everything from tracing missing refugees lost along migration routes to building common metrics to assess peacekeeping missions.

I had the chance to visit the class on Thursday evening, where a shark tank of teachers pepper the student teams with tough questions about mission value and product viability on challenges the U.S. Government is not even sure how to sort out.

I realized that if I closed my eyes, and forgot I was at Stanford, the young people in this class sounded exactly like their brothers and sisters all over the world—the exact same energy, the same passion, the same curiosity, the same anxieties, the same eagerness to put their skills and education to work on humankind’s greatest challenges.

But what most striking is seeing this energy, this innate optimism shine in even the dimmest circumstances.

About a year ago, I visited a UNICEF-run community center for refugees, primarily Syrian refugees, in Jordan where I sat down with ten or twelve young people.

Not far away, on the rough, unforgiving seas of the Mediterranean, a record number of desperate men, women, and children were risking everything to crowd onto the flimsy boats of smugglers with nothing but their children in their arms.

But the young refugees I met with that day in Amman did not want to talk about that. They wanted to talk about their futures.

Despite enduring extraordinary hardship and uncertainty, they each had a very detailed vision for what they wanted to be when they grew up. One young woman wanted to be a fashion designer. Another a doctor. Some of the young men wanted to be in business and computers.

We got to talking about computers since that is so much the currency of our world. I was curious about the extent to which they had access to computers, and to my pleasant surprise virtually all of them did. Some of them had access to computers at the UNICEF center, and most had at least one smartphone in the family. As an aside, by the year 2020, we estimate that 90% of the world’s population over the age of 6 will have access to a smartphone. Think about that.

As we were talking, I took out my own phone, held it up, and I asked them if they knew what it was. “Oh yeah, that’s an iPhone.”

I asked them if they knew who makes the iPhone. “Of course,” they said. “It’s Apple.”

I asked them, “Do you know who founded Apple?”

They paused, and one young person volunteered, “Oh yes, Steve Jobs.”

Then I asked if they knew where Steve Jobs’ father came from.

And there was silence.

The answer, of course, is Syria.

Every one of those young men and women in that room, and all these young people in our own communities and around the world have the potential to be the next Steve Jobs.

Our job, if we can, is to give them that opportunity. That is the challenge before us.

Thank you very much.